Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
Peter Addresses the Crowd But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Tales of Our Demise
Some of you may have seen the Apocalyptic-sounding headlines over the last two weeks. By many folks regard, Christians in the United States are in trouble. USA Today introduced the idea with the headline: "As Protestants Decline, Those With No Religion Gain." The Talking Points Memo's headline was "Study Finds Sharp Decline in Americans who Identify as Christian." The Washington Post heralded, "Christianity Faces Sharp Decline As Americans Are Becoming Even Less Affiliated with Religion." Christianity Today intoned: "Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles in America." And, these are just newspaper and new site headlines. Bloggers were even more hyperbolic, predicting the ultimate doom of all of American Christianity, and moving quickly to explain why there has been such a decline. You'll be happy to know that both liberals and conservatives are at fault, as are young people who think they don't need religion and self-righteous old people who push Christianity on people. The terrible secular culture has destroyed Christianity, or Christianity has destroyed itself by being a bunch of mean-spirited hypocrites, depending on who you ask. Either way, it's been a rough couple of weeks to be a Christian who hopes that your religious community will live on after this generation.
What, you may ask, has brought on all of these predictions of doom? Data. Data has made everybody think that the sky is falling. Two weeks ago now, the Pew Research Center released the results of it's most recent study of American religiosity. Pew surveyed 35,000 American adults regarding their religiosity and the numbers indicate that a major change is happening in how Americans identify religiously. There are significant changes even from 7 years ago when Pew last made a significant survey of the population of the United States. What the researchers have found is that, though the US is still home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and just over 70% of Americans identify as Christians, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christians has dropped at least 8 percentage points in the last seven years. That is a significant decline in a very short time. In Maine, the numbers are even more dramatic. In the last seven years, Mainers have shifted from 72% identifying as Christian down to 60%. Nationally, during that same time period, the percentage of people who consider themselves to be religiously unaffiliated, that is the atheists, agnostics, spiritual but not religious, and nothing in particular folks, has risen nearly 6%. Now, almost 23% of the US population identifies as a None, as someone who is not actively religious. Here in Maine, 31% of the population considers themselves to be religiously unaffiliated.
The future looks even more grim when you begin to look at individual Christian groups. Among all of the various Christians groups, two groups in particular lost more than any of the rest: Mainline Protestants and Catholics. We are Mainline Protestants. We dropped by more than three percentage points of whole US population. That is a lot of people. Like, somewhere between 3 and 5 million people. And, when we look at religiosity among different age groups, we discover another trend that seems to spell trouble for the church. Young people are increasingly joining the ranks of the Nones. 35% of adults under 29 years old are not religiously-affiliated. 37% of adults between 30 and 49 years old are unaffiliated. Adults under 29 years of age only make up about 16% of Mainline Protestants. Though you may not know these exact numbers, I bet these trends don't surprise you. You have seen them in your neighborhoods and in our own church. I bet you've seen them in your family, too. American Christianity is changing, and many people are worried.
Now, just as quickly as some people have shouted out about the "terrible decline in Christianity," others have come in to explain why it may not be such a bad thing or may not be that big of a deal at all. Evangelical author Ed Stetzer argues that American Christianity isn't dying as these numbers might suggest. He says that the declines in Christianity are not from the devout but from those who think of themselves as Christians in name only. For those for whom Christianity is simply how they were raised or part of their cultural, regional, or ethnic identity, they no longer feel compelled to identify as Christians. Stetzer seems to think that it's not necessarily a bad thing that people who don't actually understand themselves as Christians no longer feel the need to identify as Christians. I'm inclined to agree. I want people to be able to honestly describe their religious beliefs, even if that means that fewer people openly identify as Christians.
Others have argued that a significant portion of this decline is simply part of the ebb and flow of Christian religiosity that has been part of the United States for as long as people of European descent have been on this continent. In their book Prophecies of Godlessness: Predictions of America's Imminent Secularization from the Puritans to Postmodernity, Charles T. Matthewes and Christopher McKnight Nichols argue that in every century since Europeans landed in what has become the US, significant religious and philosophical leaders have believed that Christianity was in decline. Now, they didn't necessarily agree on whether this was a good or bad thing. But, nevertheless, predictions of Godlessness are a significant part of our American Heritage. Our own Puritan forebears were experts in predictions of Godlessness and moral decline. Hear these words from Samuel Hopkins, preached in 1776, on the decline of true Christianity due to the influence of slavery:
Can we wonder that Religion is done to decay in our Land, that vice and profaneness have
overspread the whole Land, when the Ever glorious God has been blasphemed openly in the
practice of Slavery among us for So long a time? or can we wonder that God is now breaking us
down and plucking us up, and thretning Soon to make us no people who have So long
blasphemed his holy name that is Seases now to be any longer a refuge for us, affords no plea
in our favour, but is really against us, God being obliged for the Glory of his own name now to
destroy us from being any Longer a people if we will not reforme.
Now, that is a prediction of Godlessness if I ever heard one.
As a student of history, I find Matthewes and Nichols argument compelling. This is not the first time that we have heard of the decline of Christianity, and it probably won't be the last. However, that being said, we do have some hard data now that shows just how much American religiosity is changing, and Christianity seems to be on a down-swing. We have the history of our own church as an example of this change. Just because there have been other periods of transition doesn't mean that we aren't in a period of transition now, and that doesn't mean that we can ignore changes in culture that are all around us. All of our structures for being church were developed when Christianity was on an up-swing. If we ignore the changes in our culture, we can certainly count ourselves among the denominations and congregations who have lost the battle with brunch and sleeping in on Sunday morning.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, Jeez this is a bunch of depressing information for Chrissy to be hauling in here on Pentecost. This is supposed to be a day of celebration. It's the church's birthday. Shouldn't we be talking about something a little cheerier than the impending demise of the religious institutions that we love? Well, you're probably right. I could have brought something a little cheerier in. But, Church isn't really about being cheery. It's about being honest. And, if we are going to be good stewards of the faith community that we have inherited, we have to be honest about these changes and open to the Spirit's inspiration for how we can address them. Churches close everyday because they lose hope in their traditions and because they don't know how to live out the Gospel in new way for a new time. We in the United Church of Christ recognize that each generation is called to make this faith our own. It's now our time to make church in this new generation.
So, what does this mean? I think it means we have to take a few things seriously. One is how we welcome new people to this community. People have learned that they can be good people and not go to church. I'm glad that they've learned that. There are plenty of good people in other religions and of no religion. Being part of church isn't about being good, though, just like it's not about being cheery. It is about loving God and loving your neighbor. Each of those things is done better in community. In a world where people are increasingly seeing spirituality as something that is primarily individual and personal, our goal then is to help people see why being in a church community is important. How can we love God and our neighbor more deeply as part of a worshiping community? Why does being here, in this place, matter? That's the question we need to be prepared to answer.
In his article, Stetzer makes a good point. Christianity is losing what he calls it's "home field advantage." Christians can no longer presume that people we meet will be familiar with our faith practices or scriptures or even believe that active participation in a religious community is a good way to spend their time. As you know, if our language around our religious faith includes too many code words that unchurched or barely churched people don't know, they won't feel welcome and they probably won't come back. This church has already made some great strides in this area when you started calling parts of this building by names that most people, even people without a church background, can know and understand. Narthex is a fun word to say, but most people don't know what that means. A lot of people know what a Foyer or an entryway is. I'm glad we use the latter words. Now, our next step may be to make sure that we explain what all our acronyms are and not presume that everyone knows what they mean. We use the phrase Open and Affirming a lot, too. But, it is another phrase that people outside of the UCC don't know. How can we be more clear about what we mean when we say that we are an open and affirming church?
One more thing seems important for us to remember. In another study I've read in the last few weeks, the people surveyed, all of whom were under 35, were asked if church was a safe place to express doubt. Nearly 60% of the respondents said not too much or not at all. More than 50% of the respondents felt like they could not really be themselves at church, either. If people feel like they have to hide themselves or hide their questions, how can they truly be a part of a worshiping community? We do no service to the Gospel by pretending that we don't have questions or that we don't have problems in our lives just because we are Christian. Jesus' primary commandments are about love. Love accepts doubt and love accepts frailty. Now, since I've been a part of this church, I've seen many of you engage with doubt and human frailty in faithful and loving ways. Let's keep doing that.
One final thing. We are not the only generation of Jesus' followers who have wondered what our future holds. Perhaps we can recognize ourselves in the scared, huddled together disciples. After the crucifixion, the Disciples must have wondered if they could keep Jesus' mission going without him. Their hope was renewed through the Resurrection when Jesus gave them a mission to continue preaching and healing. That renewal made room for the Holy Spirit to fill them with a holy fire that carried with it new ways of communication that that could not have accomplished without the Spirit's help. The Spirit allowed them to speak with all kinds of different people who had never heard of Jesus before. So, you see, we're not the only ones who have been challenged to communicate the Gospel in a new way and to people who may not even think it's worth their time. Christians have been doing that for as long as there have been Christians. I pray that we can feel that rush of the Holy Spirit, too, even if we're not sure where it will lead us. There is something worth working for in this church community. There is a particular expression of the Holy Spirit that is present here. Now, let's make sure we share it with the world.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Pew Research Center's survey on America's Changing Religious Landscape:
Here is where I found the most hyperbolic article titles:
Frank L. Couch's commentary on Acts 2:1-21: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2457
Ed Stetzer, "Nominals to Nones: 3 Key Takeaways from Pew's Religious Landscape Survey," http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2015/may/nominals-to-nones-3-key-takeaways-from-pews-religious-lands.html
Charles Matthewes and Christopher McKnight Nickols, Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America's Imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day (London: Oxford University Press, 2008).
The Barna Group, "Making Space for Millenials," https://www.barna.org/spaceformillennials
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.