Making room for new life in an old faith

by Kristin on March 12, 2009

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Keith Kwok

If you’ve spent much time at Halfway to Normal, then you know I write the occasional “Christians Against Christians” post. (If you want to see them, click on Christians Against Christians in the tag cloud.)

I’ll admit, the phrase is a gimmick of sorts. My primary goal is to inspire a double-take, putting together a collection of words that make people go “wait, whaaat?” I want to make people stop and wonder, while hopefully communicating “Not All Christians Are Like That,” (whatever “that” is, in your mind).

What got me thinking about all of this again was a study that came out on Monday, about the sharp decline of people who claim some sort of religion. I’m not a fan of USA Today, but this is the best article I’ve seen on the study yet: “Most Religious Groups in USA Have Lost Ground, Study Says.” (You can see the study here: the American Religious Identification Survey.)

“The percentage of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation,” the USA Today article says. “So many Americans claim no religion at all (15%, up from 8% in 1990), that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists.”

Barry Kosmin, the survey’s co-author, came to this conclusion: “religion has become more like a fashion statement, not a deep personal commitment for many.”

OUCH!

But I’m SO not surprised to learn this. Or to hear that ex-Catholic Dylan Rossi, 21, says, “If religion comes up, everyone at the table will start mocking it. I don’t know anyone religious and hardly anyone ‘spiritual.’ ”

My response: a slice of cringe, followed by a bigger portion of hope

One part of me—the very world-focused, human-centered part of me—finds this really sad and embarrassing. It’s like being a fan of the worst team in football. (Can someone tell me which team that would be?) Except every time you turn on the news, instead of hearing the crushing score of last night’s game and the commentators joking about it, we hear news of so-called believers being judgmental, and protesting same sex marriage, and carrying signs around that say “God hates the world.” We hear Dylan Rossi and his friends mocking believers, and wondering how anyone with any sense can actually believe.

But there’s another part of me—the part that’s tuned into my soul and doesn’t care so much what people think. That part hears a tiny, urgent inner whisper: “It is time.” Jason woke up this past Sunday morning with those three words persistently needling him, and he isn’t one who often claims to hear the word of God so distinctly.

It is time.

It’s time to put to rest our tired old ways of doing church and of relating to God. It’s time to cut down that dead tree that isn’t bearing any fruit. It’s time to let the old die off and make way for something new.

This is what God is all about, after all: creating something new. And usually, before that can happen, we have to go through a painful pruning process, to make room for the newness. That was the case for me, throughout the several years surrounding my divorce. I can assure you, it isn’t pleasant. But it was necessary. That’s why, when Jason and I got married almost two years ago, this verse was on our wedding invitations:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
2 Corinthians 5:17

It’s time to open ourselves up to what’s new, and to look past the dusty traditions, the old structures of belief, and the maddening headlines, in search of good fruit.

Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Matthew 7:17-20

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  • Jason

    While the number of “nones” rose, Christians do still account for 3/4 of the respondents. What is the new way of “doing church and relating to God”? After all, aren’t the people who just “do church” part of the problem of the trend of religion as “fashion statement”? I think that many religious people need to disengage their association of atheist (or other “none” categorization) with people who have poor moral or ethical judgment.

  • http://www.twitter.com/amyjones65 Amy

    I am forever finding myself in this same struggle…”I’m a Christian, but not that kind of Christian.” I attend a fairly traditional church, but because our pastor preaches such a compassionate gospel, I am continually drawn there. In studying the Bible, I strongly hear the messages of newness, connectedness, the compassion of Christ and resist (spirit-led) any interpretation that He is exclusive. I keep quiet too often and want to embrace the “It is time” mantra with you.

  • http://www.jenx67.com jenx67

    A beautiful verse, KT. A nice reminder for me.

  • http://hollyhouse.blogspot.com Jennifer

    This year it was the Lions, from your old state! They did not win one single game.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Jason, I completely hear you. It’s not like those who identify themselves as Christian are in the minority, in any stretch of the imagination. And yes, just as there are unfair stereotypes and assumptions made about Christians, they are also made about atheists. That changes when we know people who are open about where they stand and in some way counter to what we “assume.” I know many atheists who are extremely moral/ethical, but unfortunately, many Christians stick very close to their own. Finally, I see how my word choice—”doing church”—gives the opposite impression of what I intended. What I believe is that while churches/Christian fellowships are inevitably flawed, they are still necessary if believers desire to grow and learn to serve and care for each other. For an example of a better way to “do church,” in my opinion, read my post “What does non-hypocrisy look like?” (which I know you read and commented on). I’d love to devote an entire post to this topic, so check back! And thanks for your thoughtful response.

    Amy, I’m so glad you shared a bit more about where you’re coming from. I love this: “I strongly hear the messages of newness, connectedness, the compassion of Christ.” And you’re going to embrace the mantra with me? So wonderful. Please keep me posted.

    jenx67, I’m so glad. (Just curious—which verse really resonated with you?)

    Jennifer, I was afraid someone would say that! From the way my dad complains, the Lions have been at the bottom of the heap for a while. How fitting!

  • http://www.tjhirst.com/ TJ Hirst

    I admit that I struggle with this post because I’m not sure what kind of change you are advocating. You quoted this statement: Barry Kosmin, the survey’s co-author, came to this conclusion: “religion has become more like a fashion statement, not a deep personal commitment for many.” But you also called for changing traditions and structures of belief. To what specifically?

    Last night, my husband talked with a group of friends of different faiths about these very topics. One Christian noted that many churches today no longer require anything of anyone anymore. He said the result is that they don’t require enough of us to produce real faith.

    I experience a personal “newness of life” as Paul calls it in Romans not just from just accepting myself as I am but changing, or repenting toward, what God knows I can become. His requirements upon us are compassionate because they helps us let go of selfishness, pride, worldliness and sin. They open the door for us to see ourselves and others in a new light. His expectations are important words of loving instruction to help us reach that.

  • Paul

    A religious leader once said “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.” Modern Christianity (painting with an awfully broad brush) has lost it’s ability to require anything. Many churches “come as you are” “be yourself, God loves you as you are” “just be a good person” (without ever defining what “good” is). In an effort to not offend, to be a “big tent,” they’ve removed those things that actually require something–and that something is change of the person. Christ’s primary message was repent…turn to God. Follow God’s commandments. The modern church has forgotten the repent part. And, because there is little of value in the modern church, there is little reason participate in it.

    Notice that those churches that actually require something of their members actually are growing, not shrinking. What does that teach us?

  • http://hollyhouse.blogspot.com Jennifer

    I have been mullingover this post and while I feel compelled to respond, I’m not sure how. This post has many layers, some referring to a deterioration of societal standards as well and “church” standards. I feel the same compulsion to distance myself from the squeaky wheel Christians who give the rest of us a bad name. Those hate propogaters make me look bad; I am pursuing an authentic life and an authentic faith, but they continually embarrass me and call my faith into question, where I have no involvement in that kind of crap.

    There is a deeper, much more personal level referring to your divorce and subsequent marriage. The two are inextricably linked because traditional churches have very clear ideas about divorce…but you are a living breathing person who had to “finesse” the church system, if you will. I would love to hear more about this quiet voice that tells you not to care what others think. I feel that I am moving into the place in my life where my skin really feels like my own; and I don’t have to keep up with the other mommies, or fit into to their definitions of success are, or even have a “normal” job. But, my point is, I find it interesting that you made a connection between fewer self -identified Christians and your personal struggle. I was sort of surprised at the end, thinking the post was going somewhere else.

    I have written too much, but please don’t hear that as a criticism. Far from it; just wanted more deets!

    You are the best.

  • Katey

    Well said sis. My co-worker told me a story of a businessman he knew that spouted his Christian views to anyone that would listen but then turned around and stabbed his business partber in the back by selling the business from underneath him. There are people that think when they go to church they are forgiven for whatever wrong they cause during the week; and that saddens me the most about religion today.

  • Brent Couzens

    I love this post. In a way it seems to mimic my personal experience. When I was Dylan Rossi’s age, I was also an “ex-Catholic” and most of my friends also mocked religion. I walked away because it was old and dead for me. It did not fit who I was. Then, I discovered, over time, something was missing. A connection. Call it spiritual if you will. I also discovered that the most faithful, trusting thing I could do was to be as God made me and not as the Church told me I should be. That brought me back to a reconciling ministry in the Methodist church of all places. So, the idea of pruning of the old and letting the new grow resonates with me and I think it is hopeful. Just because the most recent generation is questioning and rejecting the old versions of Christianity does not mean that they won’t in the long run find a new way of relating with God, and there is nothing wrong with that.

  • Marty Wondergem

    Check out this great article:
    The coming evangelical collapse
    http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0310/p09s01-coop.html

    It certainly follows your idea of something new being created out of the failure of the current church.

    God is definitely in the business of making things new. It sounds like your marriage to Jason is a living testimony to that. That is pretty incredible.

    My greatest fear in this whole situation is that it feels like we can no longer sit back and complain about how the Church doesn’t work, as if it’s our parents problem. No really, we are the Church, and we’re responsible for making it work. That’s pretty daunting. I’ve got way too many church responsibilities, I don’t have time to fix the Church.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    TJ, I’ve been trying to keep my posts shorter (which is really hard for me), and I knew I would inevitably be leaving out many important details on this big topic. I think your questions are worth another post, but I’ll try to respond at least briefly now. Essentially, I worry that church has become, for many, an empty tradition adhered to once a week out of habit or pretense or maybe fear. I am advocating for churches where people are being real—struggling where they are, striving to be something more, and meeting God in those places. I think that requires a lot of prayer and Bible study and discussion (and I say this fully willing to admit how far I have to go in these areas). I was really inspired to study the Bible more after reading Rob Bell’s book “Velvet Elvis” a couple of years ago; if you’ve read it, then you’ll have a good sense of where I stand. I also think Christians need to focus more on justice and mercy and compassion—with one another and in their broader communities, and the world. These are the things that seem to have been lost, in many ways, and people today don’t have time for empty traditions. I am not advocating a laid back, “it’s all good” approach to church and faith.

    Paul, I agree with much of what you’re saying. The churches that I’ve been a part of that have really challenged me personally to grow have in the broader sense been vibrant communities, full of fruit. I think the potential problem lies with HOW the church goes about “requiring something of their members.” Do they use disciplinary tactics, like withholding communion? Or do they work with people in love and compassion, through discipleship and prayer? I’ve been on the receiving end of both approaches, at two different churches, and each approach was not only reflected in my relationship with God, but also in the broader community.

    Jennifer, thank you for sharing your feelings about this issue, and how you struggle with them in your own life. Yeah, I guess it is interesting that I tied my divorce experience to this issue. I’m sure there is so deep, subconscious-level tie there. On the surface, I was just thinking about pain and pruning making way for something new and beautiful, and that always makes me think of my divorce and the few years after it. There are enormous aspects of God’s love that I never really understood until I went through this life experience. I guess that’s why Jesus told so many stories to get his message across.

    Katey, that saddens me, too. I certainly don’t expect Christians to be perfect, but I do expect them to be striving toward something more. When they use their churched status as a crutch or get-out-of-jail-free-card, I shift from sadness to anger.

    Brent, you said what I was trying to say, perfectly. Your story just builds on the one I was telling, creating a clearer picture. Beautiful. Thank you.

    Marty, that’s a fascinating, powerful article. Thanks for sharing the link. There are at least a dozen more posts to be written from the points made in the article. (Will my work here ever be done?) Anyway, you so nailed the fear factor. We’re grownups now, aren’t we? Our responsibility is both daunting and exciting (again, that’s how I felt when I read “Velvet Elvis,” because Rob Bell tells us we need to study the Bible and figure out what it means, not just regurgitate what our 70 year-old Sunday School teacher taught us 30 years ago). And your final statement, about “church responsibilities,” is SO true. So what should we do about it?