A New Old Strategy:
I must be getting older. The reason I know this is because I have been listening to some of my recent conversations. I have been spending an inordinate amount of time talking about the way things were. My generation, the baby boomers, enjoyed a unique moment in time. Our parents survived the horrors of the second world war. When they returned home they carved out lives that were as opposite from their war experiences as possible. Their post-war lives gave us the 1950s. This decade was their attempt to live what was collectively seen as the “American Dream.” The returning veterans married. They had three children. They bought homes. There was one car in each driveway. Almost every American kitchen contained a refrigerator, range, and coffee maker. Some kitchens contained these other luxury items: an electric toaster and an electric mixer. The 1950s home also included a radio and one bathroom.
This post World War world was not defined solely by its relative wealth. During that time American society enjoyed a brief period of social consensus. We were united in a national desire to build our lives, family, and nation in a prosperous and peaceful manner. All of this existed in a cultural environment that was assumed to be Christian. During this period thousands of new churches were built in the mushrooming suburbs. Most Christian fellowships thrived. Almost every boomer spent their share of time in Sunday School, memorized Bible verses, and participated in Christmas pageants. These pageants often took place in public schools. Most every child said prayers before starting their day in a public school. Christian holidays were “national” holidays. Americans did not have a nationally established faith. But it was clear that the majority of the population identified as Christian.
Something has happened. What was once assumed, can no longer be. As recently as 2005, the Gallup organization has reported that 40% of Americans say that they attended a Christian worship service in the last week. In an earlier study (1998, Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves) cast doubt of Gallup’s conclusions. The authors claimed that the Church attendance number is actually 20%. Church records were their source materials.
“We believe that too much trust has been placed in survey data and not enough attention given to membership records, patterns of giving, and even the incredulity of local church pastors when they hear that 40 percent of Americans attend church during an average week.” (1998, Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves)
A majority of Americans continue to self identify as Christians (77% Gallup – Easter 2009). But only a small fraction of them associate with a Christian community. It may be time to come to grips with the death of a myth. Active Christians are not a majority in the USA. Many studies suggest that as time goes by, the Christian cultural overlay of our society will pass away unless something changes. It may be time for Christians to let go of our old ideas of being a majority and embrace a new strategy.
Instead of spending our time grieving what has passed, it is time to lay a strategy for tomorrow. We can learn a great deal about being a minority from other groups who have survived and thrived in this situation.
One skill is to realize that most of our population does not share our Christian frame of reference. A friend of ours commented a few days ago at how surprised she was while watching a panel of college honor students on Jeopardy. At one point they were given a series of questions from the scripture. Not one of them were able to answer a single question. Scriptural illiteracy is an increasing norm in our country. Our attempts to communicate what we believe will be more effective once we discover how to use the language and symbols of this new age to bridge between the secular and faith worlds.
Another skill is to learn how to conduct our lives based on Christian principles while not expecting those around us to understand what motivates us. The Christian ideal of self sacrificial love seems alien to a world that believes that everything is all about “me.” At the same time, living this Christian ideal is a powerful witness to those who are enduring times of crisis in their own lives.
Another adjustment that we can make that might be helpful is to not expect our public institutions to return to patterns that supported our faith. Christianity will not be taught in the public school system any time soon. If it were, it would be as a cultural curiosity, taught by intellectuals who do not practice the faith. There are a host of Christian values that will not be upheld or shared with the secular culture. We are losing precious time as we wait or demand that our public institutions open the doors once again to the teachings and values of the Christian faith.
Instead of focusing on what has changed, the Christian community can focus on the great opportunity we face in the 21st century. That opportunity is not based on being a majority of the population. By many accounts, we no longer are. The Christian community can respond to the opportunities of this new century by learning the tools of a minority. By doing so, we will be able to exercise the transforming influence we were called to be in the first place. Jesus called us to be the “salt of the earth.” Remember – it only takes a little salt to transform the entire batch into Kingdom dough.
We can begin by learning from the struggles, successes, and wisdom of the many minority communities among us.