"Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists," writes Andrew Sullivan. "Ignore them," he says, "and embrace Him." His provocative essay appears in The Daily Beast and Newsweek.
Another commentator writes that politicians have reduced the evangelical tradition to a "pathetic caricature," subordinating a "rich tradition of social justice to a narrow and predictable political agenda." Michael Gerson writes in his Washington Post column that politicians are giving religion a bad name.
E.J. Dionne, also in the Post, adds his voice of concern: "I want to suggest that what should most bother Christians of all political persuasions is that there are right and wrong ways to apply religion to politics, and much that's happening now involves the wrong ways. Moreover, popular Christianity often seems to denigrate rather than celebrate intellectual life and critical inquiry."
The Changing Nature of Faith
On one hand, it's notable that this discussion about the nature of faith is occurring in public media. Only a few years ago, it would not have happened. It's also notable that the commentators are not professional theologians but persons of faith writing about faith and culture as they experience it in their daily lives.
Sullivan's claim is deeply compelling, especially in light of research by the Barna Group and United Methodist Communications that confirms that young adults are turned off by the captivity of the faith to dogmatism and judgmentalism. Faith has been co-opted and collapsed into political and economic ideologies, and this causes people to turn away from the church and even to reject the faith.
And yet, as Sullivan notes, we yearn to understand the mystery of the universe and our place in it. At the root of this yearning is a search for the holy. We are asking why we are here and how we find meaning and purpose. These are faith questions.
Religious Truth Expressed in a Reasoned Way
As I have been writing these past few days, I believe this presents not only a challenge to the mainline denominations but also an opportunity. The mainline groups have long expressed values that are born of faith, in ways that appeal to people of different faiths and no faith. The mainlines have an ability to express religious truths in a reasoned way that translates to the secular culture. They are concerned for the common good.
United Methodists have discovered that providing people with a way to act on their desire to serve others encourages those outside the church to reflect on the meaning of faith and how they might relate to a faith community. Doing this also results in outward bound mission for those in the church and gives them a way to actively express their faith.
When this is done in a strategic way, communicating in a way that interprets the faith and the faith community, it serves the wider culture and energizes local congregations as well. It provides a way for the church to demonstrate active, meaningful faith absent dogma or politics. It's about service and the common good. It's about being present in the culture.
Pessimisim vs. Hope
There's a lot of pessimism afoot today about the church and faith. I even sense in some quarters panic and desperation. It's true that Christianity in the United States faces a crisis for all the reasons these commentators list and more, but I'm not pessimistic about the future. Not, that is, if the church embraces its place in society to seek the shalom of God and to be the servant people God calls us to be. The message of Easter is a message of resurrection and hope; it is a message of renewal and new life.
As Christians consider the dark day of suffering that is marked by Good Friday, looking toward the hope of Easter morning, I am reminded of Paul's admonition to the Christians in Philippi:
Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God. Carry the light-giving Message into the night... (Philippians 2: 14,15)