Where Did Jesus Go?

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(Sermon given for Belmont Presbyterian’s 100 year Revival: “The Jesus Explosion.”)

I have to confess that I have had a good time with Todd’s name for this event “The Jesus Explosion!” It’s an ear catcher to be sure and of course Todd’s use of the term is meant to imply and promote a strong outpouring of Jesus in this congregation and community and city and beyond – and the hope that what we do over these next few days will somehow rapidly expand like a literal explosion and bring Jesus into more and more hearts as we reach out in faith and hope and love as the hands, feet and voice of Christ in the world.

But I also have to confess that I have let the term “Jesus Explosion” hit me in a negative sense as well relative to what our culture – and the church – has done to the Lord . . . in many ways the real Jesus has been gotten rid of . . .  explained away by the culture – and I would contend – hidden away by the church.

Here is a bit of disturbing data taken from the recent landmark study conducted by the Pew Research Center that shows the Christian percentage of the population has dropped to just over 70%.  The last time Pew conducted a similar survey in 2007 over 78% of American adults called themselves Christian – and 15 years ago that number was just shy of 84%.

Pew found that almost every major branch of Christianity in the United States has lost a significant number of members, mainly because millennials (people born between 1990-1996) are leaving the fold. More than one-third of them now say they are unaffiliated with any faith, up 10 percentage points since 2007.

This number surprises even seasoned experts. “We’ve known that the religiously unaffiliated has been growing for decades,” said Greg Smith, the lead researcher in the new study. “But the pace at which they’ve continued to grow is really astounding.”

And it’s not just millennials leaving the church. Whether married or single, rich or poor, young or old, living in the West or the Bible Belt, the Pew Study found that almost every demographic group has seen a significant drop in people who call themselves Christians.

The drops have been deepest among both Catholics and mainline Protestants, so-called for their prominence in American history. At the same time, Hinduism and Islam have made small but significant gains. The number of evangelicals has remained relatively steady in the past seven years, even as they decline as a percentage of the overall population.

So, people who profess no faith affiliation whatsoever now form nearly 23% percent of the country’s adult population.   That puts the unaffiliated ahead of Catholics (about 21%) and well ahead of mainline Protestants that now represent only 14% of the population!. Of course Presbyterian USA membership has lost almost 2 million members since 1970 and is now down to only about 1.6 million members and is losing an average over 100,000 members a year. The math on that one is easy enough to do. If you have a child this year the PCUSA will be gone by the time she gets her driver’s license.

Looking at the long view, the generational spans are striking. Whereas 85% of people born between 1928-1945 call themselves Christians, just 56% of today’s younger adults do the same, even though the vast majority — about eight in 10 – – were raised in “religious homes.” So, each successive generation of Americans includes fewer and fewer Christians.

The Pew reports says the conclusion is simple: Older generations of Americans are not passing along the Christian faith as effectively as their forebears and young people today are simply dropping that part of their identity.”

Well. Why do you suppose that is?

I will tell you why I think that is. First of all, as a culture we’ve used science and technology to explain away God himself –  the Creator of all that is! (Can you say ARROGANCE? Can you say it really loud?!) Every few years we come up with the next “big technological thing” and proclaim ourselves to be king of our own domain. We’ve been doing this since the Industrial Revolution and the more we discover about our physical universe and the more gadgets we are able to come up with to manipulate that universe the more we think we have it “all figured out.”

All figured out?! We can’t even say for sure what the universe really is – much less where and if it ends! And if it does, what sort of thing or reality might be on the other side? We have NO CLUE! We have “proven” that time stops at the speed of light (interestingly enough, since Christ was declared to be the light of the world) but we can’t at all begin to fathom what that “eternal moment” might be like compared to the way we experience life as a passing succession of events and shared moments.

Eternity? It’s a concept our feeble minds can’t even grasp!

Quantum Mechanics has demonstrated that an object can be in two different places at one time (“What? Really?”  YES – REALLY!) and that when we watch certain energy particles they behave completely differently than when we aren’t watching them (“Weird!” YES – IT IS!) but we have no idea how or why those things happen even though we are watching and measuring them just as clear as day!

All figured out?! Really?! We are like children who, given the first look out our window into the relatively large expanse of our own backyard (but who have no knowledge of the neighborhood and city that surrounds it – much less the continent, earth, solar system, Milky Way and billion and billions of galaxy beyond) are now ready to declare to the parent that lifted us up to the window ledge, “Thanks dad – I think have it from here . . .”

“Well actually son, you don’t.”

Secondly, (and certainly every bit as disturbing) as the church we’ve put away the DIVINITY of Christ – the Son of God who is salvation itself! And substituted in his place the “life and works” of Christ as though THEY were the thing itself!

We have adopted and substituted the idea of “good works” (what in many Christian circles we now proudly call “the social gospel”) for the Way, The Truth and The Life itself, who is Christ Jesus. I would argue that the majority of mainline protestant churches are no longer the church of Jesus Christ Lord and Savior anymore – but rather the church of Jesus Christ who went around doing good deeds!

Somewhere along the way in seeking to remain relevant to a society that was claiming the new gods of science and technology the church began to accommodate itself to the world around it. We began to turn our backs on the great MYSTERY of God and stopped focusing on the foundational claims of the gospel and instead began to offer an eviscerated view of Jesus that focuses almost exclusively on the hands on ministry he did in the world – as though Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King might make just as good examples.

Jesus left no room for that! Jesus claimed to be the Son of God! He either was who he said he was – or he was as crazy as the maddest hatter that ever walked the earth!

The problem with our modern hyper focus on the “social gospel” is that such a message (devoid of the law that Christ said he came to fulfill) completely flips the truth of the gospel that Jesus preached and lived! That it is our RELATIONSHIP with God that must come first! And it is then (and only then!) that any real and genuinely meaningful “Good” we might do for Him and others will ever take place!

For good works done for good works sake alone, apart from the life sustaining love of God, are little more than nice gestures in time that ultimately add up to very little. Well intentioned to be sure – but in as much as they become “the good” that gets in the way of “the best” (that in this case is the genuine receiving of salvation itself!)  they become that which only distracts and detracts – and potentially the very tool of Satan himself – who will use anything to keep us from “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”(Ephesians 4:13). (P)

So. What to do? Well, perhaps the first part of our answer should be to stop doing what we have been – which is a seemingly never ending accommodation of the gospel to the culture around us. We must be the church that Christ called into being – not the church that human hearts and hands (even with the best of intentions) might think it should be. Peter also wanted to accommodate the early church to the specific needs of the more orthodox Jews in the Mediterranean and Paul wisely counseled and corrected him by the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the ministry to the gentiles began. You and I wouldn’t be sitting here tonight if it hadn’t been so.

At the end of the CNN article that I gleaned much of the Pew research from, a “religion expert” (whatever that is) from Duke University said that he believes that many young Christians are “bored by church” and that they are more interested in “working with the wider world” and that they want “serious engagements with Christian social innovation, and deep ‘intellectual reflection’ and that this (he believes) offers promising signs of hope.”

I would contend that the truth is something closer to exactly the opposite. Young people don’t need “serious engagements with Christian social innovation (they’ve had plenty of that for the last 40 years). What they need is “serious engagements” with Jesus himself – who alone, first and foremost, is our Lord, Savior and mediator with the Father – whose sacrifice upon the cross and whose blood and body (Yes! Blood and body shed for us and broken for us) is the ONLY THING that can offer redemption to a fallen world that by all indications will become increasingly more so until the day he comes again.

So, let us all – go – do – and be – the TRUE Body of Christ in the world.

– Stuart Revercomb