Two articles recently caught my attention. The first, written by Joshua Whitfield for the Dallas Morning News, grapples with the question of why so many people are leaving the church. It is not that people are becoming less religious, Whitfield argues. It is rather that if “religion” is defined (in the classical sense) as “that which holds our attention and which binds us together,” then people are not abandoning religion but simply switching their affiliation to the American consumer religion of “binge-watching Netflix, consumption addictions to various social media, pornography, and the litanies of endless news, fake or otherwise.” People are not abandoning religion but simply switching their affiliation to the American consumer religion of binge-watching Netflix, consumption addictions to various social media, pornography, & the litanies of endless news. Click To Tweet
Minding Only Ourselves
The consequences of this switch are disastrous. Not only does the constant diversion of our attention towards trivia slowly erode and ultimately eviscerate moral imagination, it tends toward the rending of the fabric of our society. Minding only ourselves, our needs, our whims, and our entertainment, we no longer feel the obligation to discharge the sacred duty of attention and care for others.
Ryan Burge has pointed out as much. In the second article that caught my eye, Burge analyzes data on income inequality over the last four decades and notes that as the income gap has widened, so also has the gap in church attendance and socializing between the rich and the poor widened. Those who are poor, says the data, are fleeing our churches, and becoming more isolated as they do.
This is “incredibly troublesome from a social science perspective,” writes Burge.
“In addition to offering spiritual teachings and guidance, churches are ideal places to gain civic skills. Oftentimes people will be asked to organize an event, lead a small group, help develop a budget, or put together a rally. Churches broaden social networks, teach skills, and encourage community involvement—which can be highly valuable in the world of work.”
The exodus of those who are poor from the church means that they “lose out on these opportunities, which can be a disproportionate blow to the low-income families who could benefit from such connections. The…trends around the income gap and church attendance gap indicate that the invisible bonds that hold our communities together—our ‘social capital’—is fraying.”
Burge concludes with this chilling bit of commentary:
It’s impossible to know if poor Americans left the church because they didn’t feel welcome or if they left because they don’t have the time or energy to attend. Either way, the income inequality that is ravaging the American economy is also taking a toll on our communities. Churches used to be a way to bridge this divide, but even there, the gap between haves and the have nots is growing larger.
Both articles haunt me. A line from Whitfield in particular rings in my ears: “Christianity today is mostly just sentimentality, escapist devotion, mere identity politics, and mere posture.”
I know that this is not universally true. Every church, every denomination, every network of churches, sit somewhere on a spectrum. But to the extent that these things are true, to the extent that we have slid, wittingly or unwittingly, into sentimentality, escapist devotion, identity politics, and posturing, we have and will continue to become irrelevant to the great needs of humanity. It mars, often fatally, our witness.
Everything is Awesome
The temptation to sentimentality this time of year is frankly staggering. “It’s the holiday season,” so the song goes, “so whoop de do and dickory dock, and don’t forget to hang up your sock.”
Whoop de do is an apt characterization of the pervasive mood of the season. Christmas decorations and advertisements begin to appear sometime in October (or earlier, in many cases), march steadily into the culture during November, and by the time December rolls around threaten to sweep us away in a flood of festive Starbucks cups, cheerful holiday greetings, and an inordinate amount of happily-ever-after Hallmark Christmas movies. Everything is just so nice and wonderful and whoop de do!
Now don’t get me wrong here. I promise I’m no Scrooge. I enjoy it all—the cookies and the parties and the music and the ugly sweaters and watching The Grinch for the umpteenth time with our kids—as much as the next person. There can be beauty and goodness in time-honored holiday traditions. But it’s easy to forget the biblical summons during this season. Mary’s Magnificat tells the tale:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever. (Luke 1:46-55)
As Fleming Rutledge has reminded us, for the church this is not “the Christmas season.” This is Advent. And Advent is about the reign of God that broke into the world with the first coming of Jesus the Messiah and will be consummated at his second coming, in which he will, as the Creed declares, return again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Advent is about the judgment of God crashing into the world. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” asks John the Baptist. “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance…The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:8, 10).
Advent is about the toppling of sinful structures, the overturning of every human order that oppresses and blights the poor, the smashing of systems and hierarchies that deny and degrade human dignity. Advent is about the scattering of the proud and the casting down of the mighty and the lifting up of the lowly and feeding of the hungry and the clothing of the naked and the inexorable fulfillment of every good intention of the Creator God for his good world. Advent is about the toppling of sinful structures, the overturning of every human order that oppresses and blights the poor, the smashing of systems and hierarchies that deny and degrade human dignity. Click To Tweet
That is what this season is about. It is gritty. It is raw. It is real. And the church is faithful just to the extent that she runs with God in her own determination to see his intentions fulfilled—come what may.
“Come What May”
Want Advent reading that will put your mind right? Set down your Christmas devotional for a moment, hit pause on the Christmas movie, silence (I’m begging you) “whoop de do”, and go look up Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better example of what it means to run with God “come what may” than the words that flowed from King’s pen in April 1963.
Imprisoned for his participation in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, King wrote his letter as a response to eight white clergymen who had encouraged him to tone down his activities, to take a more “moderate” approach. Rooting his response in the fundamentals of Christian discipleship, King laid out why such a “moderate” approach to the cruelty that black people had suffered at the hands of their white brothers and sisters was impossible; why indeed such an approach would be a repudiation of all that it means to be Christian, to be human. “Injustice anywhere,” he explained, “is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
For King and his fellow demonstrators, civil rights was not just about black people. It was about all people. It was about the intention of God to see a community of genuine brotherhood emerge, a brotherhood in which the sad divisions of humanity will have ceased, Christ Jesus reigning as the king of peace (as Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” expresses it). And King was willing to bear the cost, as his constant stress, many imprisonments, and final martyrdom bear witness.
I reread “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” recently during my devotional time and thought to myself, “This is Advent faith, if ever I’ve seen it.” Advent is an acknowledgment that all is not well with the world, that we live at the clash of the ages, and that we, as the people of God, are called into the conflict. Discipleship does not permit us the luxury of standing on the sidelines as spectators. Advent is an acknowledgment that all is not well with the world, that we live at the clash of the ages, and that we, as the people of God, are called into the conflict. Click To Tweet
As such, there is a cross already at the heart of Advent. Just as God in Christ found himself tucked vulnerable and exposed into the wooden manger, only later to be pinned vulnerable and exposed to the hard wood of the cross, so our lives as those who genuinely follow him will share the pattern of vulnerability and exposure that is the price of cruciformity. As the life of King and so many others have demonstrated, there is no other way. This is following Jesus. Period.
Advent calls us out of soppy sentimentality and into the grim realities of the world we actually live in. It calls us to carry a cross with Jesus wherever human life is threatened and degraded, wherever anti-kingdom holds sway, wherever the bright light of the gospel has not shone. It calls us to live amid the many cataclysms and sufferings of our world, to enter into it with our whole heart and soul, and to do so as the bearers of hope and promise that God has not and will not abandon his world—and neither will we.
This, I believe, is the only thing that can save us from the kind of ecclesiastical irrelevance that Whitfield and Burge’s articles demonstrate and critique. Not long after King penned his words, Pope Paul VI wrote:
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds. (Gaudium et spes, 1)
May we this Advent season remember this admonition and live it well.