‘Time was’ won’t hold

Why is the church losing influence in society? Different Christians answer in different ways.

By Bill Leonard

“Time was, when the population of many regions of America was almost entirely religious; it is not so now. Thousands there are, even of those who regularly attend public worship, who have no theology, no family prayer, no catechizing, who care for no differences of doctrine, and whose children grow up even more ignorant than themselves.... The nature of genuine piety is less weighed, less understood. The agency of the Holy Spirit has been cast into the shade; new and dangerous views of regeneration have become common; while the tendency has been taken away from dependence on God, and towards a religion of human fabrication.”

That declaration on the state of Christianity in America was made by the Rev. James W. Alexander, minister of the Nineteenth Street Presbyterian Church, New York City, in a sermon titled “The Holy Flock,” published in 1858.

With certain postmodern modifications, I offered a similar description of our contemporary situation on Nov. 17, 2012, at the “multi-denominational” Lake Oconee Community Church in Georgia.  

Perhaps the two words, “time was,” are simply the nostalgic longings of old preachers who idealize earlier eras as more vibrant and spiritually engaged than the present evil age -- until the statistics come rolling in.

On the eve of what is sometimes called the Second Great Awakening (1800 or so) church membership in the U.S. was probably no more than 12 percent. When Rev. Alexander wrote his sermon, New York seemed a seedbed of infidelity, with “the present generation” growing up, in his words, “with no proper safeguard against soul-destroying error.”

Twenty-first century American churches are still reeling from recent studies that show declining constituencies, vanishing Sunday schools, minority Protestantism and one-fifth of the population claiming no discernable religious affiliation.

Recent election results have extended “soul-searching” for many segments of the American population with inevitable implications for religion. How to respond? Two recent commentaries may inform the dilemma:

-- Demand repentance, from the culture. On Nov. 7, evangelist Franklin Graham suggested that the election results set the country on a clear “path of destruction.” The Charlotte Observer quoted Graham that, “Unless we’re willing to repent for our sins, we will stand in his judgment.... I want to warn America: God is coming around. He will judge sin, and it won’t be pretty.”

Graham later speculated that it might take a “complete economic collapse” to bring the country back to God.

Such culture-specific chastisements are nothing new. In 9/11 aftermath, Jerry Falwell was forced to retract his initial assertion that God permitted the tragedy by withdrawing his “protective hand” as judgment on increased feminist and homosexual “agendas.” In 2005, various preachers insisted that Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment against the immoralities of New Orleans.

Following the recent destruction created by Hurricane Sandy, some political and religious leaders across the theological spectrum have speculated that such a storm might be less related to divine retribution than human manipulation of God’s creation.  

Whether Franklin Graham’s dire post-election warnings will attract the “nones” or reinforce their distance from religion remains to be seen.

-- Demand repentance, from the church. Graham’s remarks are in sharp contrast to those of Shane Claiborne, writer and founder of The Simple Way, a direct ministry to the poor. In a Nov. 18 “Letter to Non-Believers,” published in Esquire, the advocate of a new monasticism called the church to repentance.

Claiborne wrote, “To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity. Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.”

He continued: “The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to disbelieve. And the sort of Christianity many of us have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus.”

Will being more “like Jesus” capture the attention of the “nones” and reclaim a new integrity for Christians? Time will tell.

These two responses reflect parallel and distinctive prescriptions for Americans in church and culture. Both exhibit prophetic overtones linked to certain biblical and historic precedents. Both leaders guide movements that address the physical and spiritual needs of human beings.

Yet one mourns the loss of the church’s leavening influence, the other the loss of its legislative influence. One laments the loss of an election, the other the demise of an identity.

In the end, “time was” won’t hold. The time is now. That’s the real test. Fascinating!  

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.