From the Pastor's Pen
From the Pastor’s Pen . . .
Typically, May is a busy month in the life of the church, and May 2019 is no exception. With the National Day of Prayer, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and graduations on the calendar there are lots of special emphases vying for our attention. Ordinarily, at least one of these would be the subject of this month’s Pastor’s Pen. But lately I’ve had something else on my mind, and hope that you don’t mind terribly if we depart from the usual topics.
Recently, I came across an analysis of statistics on religious affiliation in America that revealed some rather shocking results. For the first time in America’s history, the number of people who responded “none” when asked if they had any religious affiliation or belief was larger than any other single group. To put it another way, the analysis revealed that there are more “nones” in America (23.1%) than Catholics (23%) or Evangelicals (22.8%). Although the numbers are statistically equivalent, conceptually they are of immense significance as lamentable mileposts in decades-long trends. The study also revealed that much of the growth in the “none” category is coming from individuals who once were affiliated with one of the “Mainline” groups (Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, etc.). Now, these figures probably don’t hold exactly true in the state of Tennessee—identified by Pew Research as the 3rd most religious state in America. What is clear, however, is that America is becoming more secular by the day, and we don’t need fancy statistics to tell us that.
What is behind this great decline in religious affiliation? Keep in mind that we are not talking about denominationalism here, but merely affiliation with major religious segments within American culture. Only 22% of the “nones” identify as true atheists or agnostics, so the other 78% must have at least some beliefs that we could define as “religious.” Obviously, a substantial percentage of Americans simply feel that they have no need for religion of any ilk, and their numbers are increasing.
Upon pondering this state of affairs, I had something of a mild epiphany. More than a half-century ago, a psychologist named Abraham Maslow put forth a five-tier “hierarchy of needs” as a means of explaining human motivation. His basic theory is that before an individual can (or will) move to satisfy a higher need, he or she is moved to satisfy the lower level needs first. The five levels of needs, beginning with the lowest, are: 1—Physiological Needs (air, food, clothing, warmth, etc.); 2—Safety and Security (personal safety, employment, housing); 3—Love and Belonging (friendship, intimacy, community); 4—Esteem (respect, self-esteem, status, recognition); 5—Self-Actualization (achieving one’s full potential, creative activity). For the most part, I believe Maslow was on to something in his general assessment of things. For example, one can hardly engage in the pursuit of personal security while simultaneously gasping for air, nor is he likely to find self-esteem in the absence of loving relationships. Now, for the person who is regenerate (born-again) the power of the Holy Spirit renders much of Maslow’s hierarchy moot as we find our deepest needs met in Christ. But for the “natural man” the hierarchy of needs remains basically true. [Stay with me; there really is a point to all of this.]
A significant reason that religious affiliation (church affiliation for our purposes here) is on the wane is that fewer and fewer people find that religion (church) meets their needs. This phenomenon is in large part due to two contributing factors: Culture and the Church. Allow me to explain. First, in American culture there has been a dramatic shift in the way people perceive needs. Second, the church has generally done a poor job of both influencing the culture’s definition of need as well as demonstrating that the church is the place that people’s needs can best be met. Let’s take a (necessarily) brief look at Maslow’s five categories to demonstrate how the culture and the church have contributed to the perceived irrelevancy of the church.
Physiological needs—Jesus said, “The poor you shall always have with you.” Those who are struggling to meet their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter often turn to the church for help in meeting those needs, though usually as a last resort after secular agencies have failed them. The difficulty, however, is that the needs are so great in most instances that the church is unable to do enough to relieve the “natural man” from his physiological needs long enough for him to give any thought to his spiritual needs. In fifteen years at Glenwood, and another fifteen-plus years of ministry on other fields, I can recall not one single individual who has become a part of the fellowship of the church through a food/clothing/shelter ministry. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not advocating against such ministries, for Scripture is clear in its command to feed, clothe, and shelter those in need. I am simply saying that meeting physiological needs alone will never be sufficient to grow any church, though it may help stem the ebb of the perceived relevance of the church.
Safety and security needs—For many centuries, man’s ultimate perceived need was the security of his soul. In general terms, the church was the only game in town. The case in no longer so in the western world. In myriad ways, culture has decimated human concern about life after death and one’s destiny if such life even exists, and the church has squandered its opportunity to participate in the conversation. The rise in church shootings are emblematic. Not only does one not associate with church to find safety, one is not even safe when he goes.
Love and belonging needs—Christians know that church is perhaps the best place on earth to find love and belonging. Culture, however, has been so successful at branding Christians as bigots that relatively few people even consider the church to be a source for meeting this need. Sadly, the church itself is not entirely innocent here. As too many can attest, people find churches to be very difficult places to find true acceptance beyond filling a seat and contributing to the church’s coffers.
Esteem needs—Once upon a time, the church was the center of the community, the hub around which all things revolved. For better or worse, most folks found church to be a place that affirmed their sense of personal worth, a place where everyone finds respect, a place that values more or less equally the contribution they have been gifted to make to the body of Christ. In today’s culture, the church is conceived by many as just being an obstacle in the way, or at the very least as being on the sidelines. One is as likely to be ridiculed as respected for his or her affiliation with a church.
Self-actualization needs—Closely related to the need for respect and self-esteem is the need to pursue a life with meaning and purpose. Many believers understand that our true purpose is fulfilled within and through the body of Christ, the church. We understand that all of our needs are met in (and only in) Christ. Sadly, the church has no role in helping individuals find their purpose or reach their full potential as contemporary culture defines purpose and potential, and the lives of too many believers only reinforce culture’s conclusion.
On the face of it, this analysis paints a rather bleak picture for the church in coming years. But prima facie conclusions are not always accurate. Remember that the early church faced even greater opposition—both passive and aggressive—from the culture. Through it all, the church prevailed in the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of Jesus Christ. Beginning with only about one-hundred and fifty followers, the fledgling church changed the world. What then is the message for Glenwood today? First, we must learn to see the ministries and activities of the church through the eyes of the secular lost. We must demonstrate to them the relevance of the church, and the first step is believing it ourselves! Second, we must engage and influence the culture. We may not be able to transform the culture of America, but we can certainly influnce the culture of our community, our city, and our county. Finally, we must do all in the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of Jesus Christ and the advancement of His kingdom. Jesus will still build His church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. If we would be part of what He is doing, we must be a church on the move. Rise up, O church of God!