Obsessing Over Oddities - The Focus of a Life in Jesus and The False Assumption that Church Attendance is Declining in America

Recently, one of those Facebook chain messages - you know the kind that get repeated and repeated with the caveat at the end that you should also post on your page - appeared on many well-intentioned Christian status updates.  This one blamed the rising unemployment and increased gas prices in America on removing prayer from school and companies saying "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas".  

As you can see above, Ryan, an atheist friend of mine, posted that he thought it was outrageous.  I think I will have to side with the atheist on this one.  What Christians often fail to see is how ensnared in American materialism they have become.  There are more important things to life that than cheap gas and being employed.  For starters, its nice that we have created a society that has a social umbrella to keep the unemployed fed.  That's good, loving, Christian action happening all around us.  

The cheap gas, that some view as a blessing, could actually be a manifestation of our immorality, not a blessing for our faithfulness.  When people sin, they usually do it because they receive a buzz or a rush that keeps them doing it.  For us, the buzz might just be spending less money on gas.  Is the buzz worth it in the long term?  Is the gas really cheap even when it does not appear to cost much money at the pump?  How many lives have we paid (both through sacrificing and killing) for that cheap gas?  How much money have we spent to prop up unjust puppet dictators who would like to export to us?  How much treasure have we spent on our military to go around acting like the oil police in order to bring "stability" to those oil-producing nations?  All in the name of "cheap" gas.  Even free gas would not be cheap when you measure it by the societal impact we must pay to have it.  

On the other side of the coin, I probably disagree with my atheist friend.  God does bless and punish nations, but I don't think the standard He uses to measure faithfulness are school prayer and whether people say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays".  Those are just two external rituals that people who do not even believe in Him can participate in.  They do not even come close to transforming a society into a reflection of the kingdom of God.  The awe-inspiring, majestic, and powerful kingdom of God is morphed into a petty kingdom of beguiling issues.  Sadly, the Christian community gets so distracted and caught up in sideshows like the battle for prayer in school and "Merry Christmas" that we ignore that we have already ran to the bottom of the feared slippery slope in order to fight these petty battles.  Jesus would like us to use "how we love our neighbor" as the measuring stick for our faithfulness, not another well-intentioned, yet really meaningless, fight against or for the petty trend of the day.

One of the myths that caused the false conclusion that religion is losing influence in America is the belief that church attendance is on the decline in America.  Christianity Today's article, Three Church Growth Myths shows that isn't the case.  

Don't start cheering or sneering yet.  Church attendance was not really at 43% in 1999.  That's just what people claim.

A study from 1993, What the polls don't show: A closer look at U.S. church attendance, shows that the numbers cited in these surveys are skewed by people either projecting who they want to be in regard to church attendance or just outright lying.  What the authors of this study found was that there was a huge discrepancy from church attendance numbers and the percentage of people who say they are regular attenders.  They studied Ashtabula County in northeastern Ohio.  They conducted their own survey and found that 35.8% of Protestants claimed to have attended church in the last seven days.  They then contacted every church to ask their actual church attendance numbers.  The reality was that only 19.6% of Protestants actually attended.  They then studied Catholic numbers in various cities.  They showed a similar drop in claimed attendance versus actual attendance. 

Despite the popular thought that America was more Christian in the past, there is no evidence to support that claim.  A great Christian decline has not occurred from the mythological golden age of the 1950s until now.  That is not to say that a decline has not been felt more locally; there has been a decline in most mainline Protestant denominations, but the slack has been picked up by the surge in non-denominational churches and new denominational upstarts.  The church population has experienced been more of a shift than a decline, yet the church is keeping up with the population growth.  All studies show that around 40 percent say that they go to church.  Since they started counting the actual number in 1990, the survey numbers have still been right around that 40 percent level. One could logically assume that the same percentage of people were lying in all the church attendance surveys and conclude that church attendance has been the same in American since World War II.

Unfortunately, the Facebook status updates like the one that began this discussion are the result of a "world is out to get us" and "things are getting terrible" attitude that Christians identify with. Certain strains of Christianity foster this destructive attitude, but this is not the message that Jesus taught. It's really a shame because we - if what we claim to believe is true - should have the most blessed and joyful lives; lives that inspire us and others to live sacrificially and love others so that the world can be a better reflection of the kingdom of God.