The latest Pew Poll centering on American religious preferences or identification revealed… not much. We all knew the mainline denominations aren’t really the sources of identity they once were, and more people aren’t really going to church/temple/anything.
The Christian response has been mixed. Most of us are not surprised by these numbers. Some see this as a positive, a return to genuine Christianity for those who stay in the church. Others are aghast at the loss of ground to the gospel. For my part, I’m surprised Christians are still in a profound majority within our Country and that non-Christians are only 6% of the population.
What’s funny is, I cannot point to any reason why I should be surprised, but there you are, that’s how impressions and feeling work without stats to back them up. Of course, stats also lie.
There are of course far more responses than these three, but I’m not convinced that these are truly representative of the real situation in the pews. The numbers tend to be skewed based on population centers, and where I live, these are not even close to accurate. Most of the Bible belt is definitely Christian.
But there in lies the rub – what do we mean by Christian? Polls seem to indicate that people attending once a month may claim to have a profound connection and identity rooted in the church – in other words they have ownership in the church. They only come once a month, maybe 12 times in a year or less. Yet they belong.
So, what combination of belief and practice equates with Christianity?
I’m not going to speculate about this at the moment. It suffices to say, that a claim of being Christian is sufficient for the pew poll. Either way, we have a phenomenal group of people that have a sense of the gospel and are either rebelling from it or are not involved. Either that, or they have no knowledge of the gospel.
This cannot help to ring in the classic vision of pentecost – empowered prophets teaching about Jesus in different language.
Peter and the disciples sitting around the table after the ascension waiting.
The wind blows, tongues of fire come out, and now the rag tag group is out spreading the gospel and teaching about Christ.
Honestly, this vision probably seems like what we need right now to a great many Christians. Wait, get empowered, and speak the gospel. Even Paul took time to educate himself to the intricacies of the gospel before he went and started teaching. It’s this solo time that interests me, this time apart that fascinates me.
That’s why I’m not using Acts to talk about Pentecost – although truth be told it’s the only way we get the term pentecost, a term that refers to the season of time between Easter and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Instead, I’m going to use a passage that puts the foundation for our hearts, our minds, and our spirits in Christ the cornerstone. In other words, a place to build up from in order to go forth to proclaim or perhaps to proclaim through building up. This passage invokes a profound intimacy with God and with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” – John 20:19-23
Instead of tongues of fire, John tells us of a Jesus who gives us the garlic and olive oil breath. Ok, so maybe there is a whiff of fire/garlic in the moment. The power of the gospel comes in this closeness with Christ and with each other.
It is at once a mystical encounter with a resurrected lord, the image of God, the spirit of God, the word of God. It’s easy to forget that in the midst of Christ’s humanity that Christ is fully divine as well. Jesus acts in the way the creator did in Genesis one – reshaping humanity and then breathing life into them. Except here, Jesus has reshaped the ‘clay’ of the disciples and breathes new life into them.
The gospel that Peter preaches in Acts is preached not for ambition, pride, selfish gain, or even a profound belief in his own ‘being correct’, and let’s be honest, most of us have fallen into one of these categories at some point in preaching or evangelizing. What drives Peter’s words in Acts is the profound and soul altering interaction with the divine in Christ.
That’s some powerful garlic breath he got hit with.
So, when I see the pew poll and hear people talking about the new domestic mission field of all the unaffiliated and non-christians, I wonder what motivates our words. Do we truly want people to get hit by the breath of God and a peace that surpasses all understanding? When people start talking about the people in the pews being the faithful remnant, I wonder how many of them are still waiting to get hit by the breath of God.
For me the gospel is about encountering the power of God. Paul said when he came to Corinth he did not rely upon clever words but on the power of God. The encounter, the presence of God, the relationship with God is the point. This requires preachers – how else would we know to look, to seek after Christ? But it requires preachers that are anchored in an experience of God.