Every once in a while I read an article on CNN’s Belief Blog. The reporting and commentary is often interesting—but then I get drawn down to the amazing emotional energy in the Comments section. I’ve found that the comments generally fall into one of three categories: 1) comments which genuinely engage with the topic at hand, 2) broad comments which disparage religion in general, and 3) broad comments which disparage religious institutions and leaders specifically as greedy and only out for money.
Really, I found that categories 2 and 3 outnumber 1 by wide margins.
Why is this?
I think it’s rather simple: people don’t trust the church.
And, really, can we blame people for this? On the national level we’ve been saturated in sordid church scandals for years. Televangelists stealing money, mega-church pastors living extravagantly with Rolls-Royces and jet planes, evangelical pastors getting caught with prostitutes and drugs, prominent preachers being accused of grooming teenage boys, and the huge pedophile-priest scandal which has rocked the Roman Catholic Church and implicated people high up the chain of command.
And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Perhaps if these stories were just national, people might be more forgiving. But, of course stories like these, albeit on smaller scales, are known in most every community—the local priest or pastor who is caught watching pornography at the office, or is caught with a misstress, or a prostitute, or is caught with their hand in the offering plate. These stories are out there, and they only solidify the national narrative.
Why does no one trust us? Gee, I wonder.
That anyone trusts us at all anymore—with their spiritual lives, or the lives of their children—is amazing.
People’s engagement with religion in America in on the decline. The Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey has found that while nondenominational Protestants are growing in their share of the population, Baptists (of all stripes) have declined 3.7%, Methodists by 2.1%, Episcopalians 0.3%, and Roman Catholics by 7.5%. (These net-change figures are based on childhood affiliate versus current affiliation. The PDF document can be found here.)
Last week the media produced a flurry of responses to the end of The Episcopal Church’s General Convention—a convention which made many, many decisions, including the provisional approval of a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. The most prominent articles were by Jay Akasie who wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal, “What Ails the Episcopalians,” and Ross Douthat’s article in the New York Times, “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”
Akasie’s piece has been roundly smacked as a hack-job with very little, if any, grounding in actual “facts,” and Douthat’s piece has inspired some questions as to whether liberal Christianity is the only brand of the faith that needs saved—especially given the radical decline of Baptists and Catholics, hardly bastions of liberalism.
But, perhaps it is Akasie who hits the nail on the head. Not because he gets anything right, but because “truthiness” wins the day. There is very little actual truth there—but the church at large has earned so very little trust from society at-large that “actual truth” and “facts” may not matter anymore.
The church can be presented as a frat party whose sole aim is celebrating sodomy, and anyone who isn’t invested in the church already won’t even blink.
When the church—liberal and conservative, social-justice and evangelical, Protestant and Catholic—has no bank of trust to cash-in, the church can’t speak to any issue. The Episcopal Church has no more sway in society’s acceptance of same-sex relationships than the Roman Catholic College of Bishops has in another denouncement of the Affordable Care Act.
No. One. Cares. What. The. Church. Thinks.
A mainline denomination makes a statement on immigration? #eye-roll
An evangelical pastor says that all gays should be rounded up concentration-camp style? #figures
A catholic priest denounces contraception? #whatever
A congregation calls for more food to be donated to local food banks? #rotfl
At this point the labels “liberal” and “conservative” have no meaning. Tragically, those outside of the church just think we’re just one great-big-bunch of lobotomized idiots who talk to an imaginary man—or worse, that we’re a pack of predators preying on the weak-minded for their money.
What’s the church missing? What’s keeping us from gaining any traction with people, and gaining some well-needed trust?
In my opinion: humility.
The church has done so many dumb, stupid, and sinful things through the ages. Dumb things a millennium ago, and dumb things a day ago. But, still we try and throw our weight around like the great moral chiefs that we imagine ourselves to be.
In the eyes of the world though, we’re morally bankrupt. We’re untrustworthy.
Really, I don’t think the great threat to the church is growing secularism from without our walls, but the lack of humility from within them—a dearth of humility which prevents us from earning back some cred, and trust.
Before we can make great statements on the state of the world today, before we launch out on another reshuffling-of-the-deckchairs denominational reorganization, before we call for another “decade of evangelism”…we need to repent of the things we’ve done, and the things we’ve left undone. We need to tell the world that while we’re an institution with divine aspirations, we’re also just a bunch of sinners who are all-too capable of the worse kind of offenses.
That while we represent God to the world—oftentimes very poorly—we aren’t God. We still see though a mirror dimly, and we still carry our faith in clay jars.
And, that we desire the world’s forgiveness, and God’s.
The challenge here is though is…who’s going to do this? The Pope? The Presiding Bishop? A denominational general assembly?
Really, who would would trust such a statement anyway?
For it to happen, it needs to happen pew by pew, pulpit by pulpit, congregation by congregation, denomination by denomination. I know it’s hokey to say, but it really does need to start with me. And you.
Humility needs to bleed out of our prayers, and our preaching, and our witness, our denominational meetings, our press releases, and our service in the world.
We need to demonstrate our humility and our human-ness, and our desire for forgiveness and grace—every bit as much as the message that God can forgive us, and does, when we repent and return to Him.
When we lose the swagger, and regain a posture of faithful humility, not only would Akasie’s piece not be written, but it wouldn’t have a chance of being swallowed in a pill of truthiness.
And, it wouldn’t just be “liberal” Christianity that would be saved.