“Sow with a view to righteousness, reap in accordance with kindness; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord until He comes to rain righteousness on you.” – Hosea 10:12
Many Christians today are wringing their hands and lamenting the apparent drift away from Christianity among Americans. A recent Pew poll seems to confirm this drift: “[A] major new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014.” Such a steep decline is unprecedented since such polls have been taken. The study goes on to say, “Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated—describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’—has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. And the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths also has inched up, rising 1.2%, from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014.” The biggest drift away from identifying as Christians was seen among young people.
There are many reasons people credit for this trend and many of them have some measure of truth but the Bible reveals the basics about the human condition that should make such trends a little less surprising. In my usual course of reading through the Bible I am nearly finished reading the historical books of the Old Testament. There we see the way the nation of Israel waxed and waned in its faithfulness to God, both during the rule of the judges and during that of the kings. Now, we should not make a simple comparison to the results of a Pew survey because a mere willingness to call oneself a Christian is not a real measure of adherence to God. In the Old Testament, as well as the New, faithfulness is measured much more by willingness to do the will of God than merely making a profession of faith. If you had asked the average Israelite during even the spiritually darkest periods of their history, if they worshiped Yahweh, the God of Israel, they would have probably answered “Yes!” But if you had then asked them if they used idols or worshiped the gods of the Canaanites they would have also answered “Yes!” They were not faithful. What constituted unfaithfulness to God would have also included things like reaping the corners of your fields instead of leaving them for the poor, not allowing your servants to rest on the Sabbath, failing to forgive debts at the end of seven years, failing to return land to the original owners in the year of Jubilee, committing theft, murder and adultery or offering your children in the fire to Moloch (something the surrounding nations did).
What we really should have been measuring all along is the spiritual condition of the Church, not the nation. As Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” In other words, our main business is not to make sure America worships the true and living God but to make sure the Church does! That’s a big enough job in itself. If the Christians and churches of Christ in America or any nation are in a healthy condition then it will be good for that nation, whether the leaders or majority of the people in that nation profess Christianity or not. Jesus said to His followers, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16) Salt is a preservative. It is no wonder that a nation becomes morally rotten, without the salt that would preserve it. And it is not surprising that a nation would be steeped in spiritual darkness without a lamp to give it light. The Church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be that salt and light. If it has lost its saltiness it will no longer fend off corruption and if its light is hidden under a basket, it will not push back the darkness.
If the Bible is our guide on this, the main reason fewer and fewer people in America are even bothering to profess Christian faith is that those who do differ little at all from those who don’t. Recently I was listening to an interview on the radio with a well-known writer who said he grew up in a Christian home in a part of the country that was (and is) very overtly Christian. Among the observations he made was that those places in America where the proportion of people who profess Christianity the most also happen to be the places where divorce rates, abortion rates and crime rates are the highest. I noticed while driving through one of the areas he was talking about that though nearly every radio station sounded like it was having church (and it wasn’t a Sunday) I kept passing prison after prison and through poor, decrepit towns. I don’t mean to pick on the “Bible Belt”. It really does contain some of the best Christians and churches on earth but that belt is getting thinner and tighter all the time.
The problem is that the Church has spent the past couple of generations unwittingly “turning the grace of God into licentiousness” (Jude 4) by making it appear that salvation is purely a matter of accepting a free pass to heaven when you die instead of entering into a heart and life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ here on earth. Salvation isn’t, in the first place, about getting into heaven but about heaven getting into us. Just moving your soul from one piece of real estate to another won’t make you better, it’ll just make the new place as bad as the old one! In addition, we have become “unequally yoked” with certain political movements on both the left and right like the ancient Israelites, some of whom allied themselves with Egypt and others with Assyria to preserve their prosperity, power and freedom! The result of these alliances was the loss of those things and, more importantly, of God’s favor. Like the Israelites of old, We Christians simply need to listen to Christ and follow His commands regardless of how it looks to worldly centers of power and influence.
Even so, the answer isn’t to berate other Christians and churches but to look at our own hearts. As Hosea said, “it is time to seek the Lord” by breaking up the fallow ground, the hardness of heart toward God that has built up in us over time, until He sends his rain of righteousness upon us and we bear the fruit He seeks, whether we be many or few in the land.