Over the last week, a lot has been written about the recent Pew Research Center survey on religion in America. The gist of the survey is that fewer Americans identify themselves as Christians and, of those who do, fewer are claiming membership in mainline protestant denominations and Catholicism. The headlines have also focused on the increasing number of folks who say that they are atheists. Some writers sound almost despairing in their review of the survey results. It’s as if the end of Christianity is just around the next corner. Others have analyzed the numbers in any way they can that will shore up their own particular beliefs and prejudices. I’ve been reading the survey and many of the varied commentaries on it and have come to my own peculiar conclusions.
It’s not that I don’t think information like the Pew survey can be informative. But for me, the responses to the survey are even more interesting than the survey itself. To begin with, what do these survey results have to do with our faith? Evidently, it’s enough to make many writers and chroniclers wring their hands in anxious worry. But I think they’re wrong to worry, at least about this. The Church is not a spreadsheet. And we’re led by a Shepherd, not an accountant. There’s a danger in looking at faith through corporate eyes. We forget that the world’s rules don’t apply to followers of Jesus Christ. If we allow them to, then we’ve truly lost our way. Getting us lost is what the world is always trying to do to us. And we can’t allow it.
Christ never told us that the Church would enjoy the favor of history. He told us just the opposite. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves”(Matthew 10:16). “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet”(Matthew 10:14). Since the earliest years of the Church, there have been those who have left and those who have rejected Christ outright. Heresies come and go like the wind. The faith of Christ isn’t easy. Many find it too hard to bear. We have to remember that the only measuring stick for the Church is that tree on Golgotha’s hill.
Jesus has promised to always be with His Church and that the Holy Spirit will always protect and guide His flock. Did He promise that the Church would never see a decline in members? No. And we also have to remember that the United States, which is where the survey was conducted, isn’t the center of the world. His Church is bearing fruit in great numbers in other countries.
The Church is only as healthy and strong as each one of us. If folks are leaving the Church, we have to look at the example each one of us being for Christ. The world will know us by the fruit we bear: love, charity, kindness, joy and peace. Are we so muddled and lukewarm in our own journey that we are no longer a light in the darkness? If we are away from the Sacraments that Jesus gave us, how can we keep our eyes fixed on Christ? If we aren’t on our knees before Him in Adoration, how can we be surprised when no one else is? Our faith is not about surveys or spreadsheets—it’s about relationships: my relationship with Christ and with my neighbor. We have to remember His words above all—“…apart from Me, you can do nothing”(John 15:5).
“So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s foolishness.”
—I Corinthians 1:23