Religion Is Alive and Well

Those who are worried about the future of religion in America (i.e., whether religion has any future) need to read Frank Newport’s new book God Is Alive and Well.  According to this editor-in-chief of the Gallup poll, there is no reason to be concerned, and plenty of reasons to be encouraged.   Americans become more religious as they grow older, and the massive generation of baby boomers is aging right on schedule.  The influx of Hispanic immigrants is bringing more religious interest and involvement to our country.  Many Americans are relocating from fairly non-religious states (such as New York and Vermont) to highly religious states (such as South Carolina and Mississippi).  Finally, average Americans are seeking ways to improve their health and wellbeing, and religion is being promoted for its power to relieve worry and suffering, produce inner calm, and encourage healthy behaviors.  All of these trends portend a bright, perhaps even brighter, future for religion in our country.  Religion is alive and well. 

Of course, religion’s future will be quite different from its past.  Not only will the presence and power of the major faiths of Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism increase, but our own home-grown religions of Mormonism and Christian Science will also become more influential.  New forms of paganism and animism are emerging.  Emotive-expressive individualism has taken on religion-like qualities and functions, and Americans are by nature syncretists who like to mix-and-match and create their own designer religions. 

I must mention the rapid rise of the “nones,” or those who do not identify or associate with any denomination, tradition, faith, or religion, although they still claim to be “spiritual.”  Forget organized religion.  Forget religion as we have known it.  These spiritual independents are freely seeking spiritual experience and expression in unusual, unexpected places such as gardening, jogging, drum circles, sports, meditation exercises, and community service. 

Therefore, we can be relieved to learn from Newport and the public opinion analysts at Gallup that we will not be going down the same secularization path of many European countries.  Religion is very much alive and well in America.  In fact, we are on the brink of such a religious resurgence that the Apostle Paul could stand on the steps of our nation’s capital, saying, “Americans, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” (Acts 17:22) 

However, this is a brave new world for religious Americans, and especially for those of us who are still connected to the church and its faith-tradition.  It is truly a fascinating, though confusing, time to be a Christian.  My take on the current moment is that it is not a “great awakening” in terms of a revival of Christian truth and spirit.  While religion is alive and well, I am not confident that identifiably, distinctively Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy are.  There is a difference.  Therefore, as a pastor and a professor, I am urging my congregants and students to take seriously these dynamic, rapidly shifting, increasingly religious-spiritual times in which we are living, but then to take far more seriously the knowledge, obedience, practice, and witness of our own faith.  What I most worry about is not the future of religion, but rather the future of Christian biblical-theological faith.

N. Keith Smith

Introverts in the Church

The Hellenist widows were the first group in a local congregation to cry “Foul,” and to complain that their needs were not being met (Acts 6:1-7).   The latest are the introverts.

Thanks to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), based on Carl Jung’s work and first published fifty years ago, almost every church member now knows his or her “personality type.” Some persons function as “introverts” (or “I’s”), while others function as “extroverts” (or “E’s”).  (For the sake of full disclosure, I am an “I”:  INTJ.)

Introverts are now speaking up and speaking out.  This is hard for them to do, since introverts by nature prefer staying in the background and remaining quiet.   This is the title of a current New York Times bestselling book by Susan Cain:  Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  She passionately argues that our society undervalues individuals who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying, innovating and creating without self-promotion, and working alone rather than in teams.  Extroversion is our cultural ideal.

Of particular interest is Cain’s brief discussion of the schism between introverts and extroverts in the evangelical church.   She contends that the contemporary congregation is designed by and for extroverts.  Introverts follow along, but often with great (and quiet) discomfort and difficulty.  They find the packed schedules of frenzied activities and meetings, the public expressiveness of worship experiences, and the emphasis on high-octane leadership to be taxing.

Adam S. McHugh, a Presbyterian minister, writes out of his own experience for all introverts who are feeling out of place in the church.  In his book Introverts in the Church:  Finding Our Place in An Extroverted Culture, he calls upon the local congregation to reach out and welcome the introverts in their company, to understand and value them, recognize and properly use their leadership gifts, and be shaped more by their thoughtfulness, spiritual depth, compassion, and slower pace of life.  Both the church’s ministry and its witness will be enhanced.

I believe this is a movement that all of us Christian introverts can join.  We live in an age of diversity.  Both in culture and in church, our condition is that of “difference.”  We are of varying ages, genders, races, opinions, and so on.  Why not acknowledge that we also have different ways of perceiving, coming at, and living in this world; and that faith is shaped, expressed, and practiced differently in persons of different personality types?

However, I do have one major concern.  Given our emphasis on diversity, how do we “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”?  (Eph. 4:3).  How do we practice our baptismal faith in such a way that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, (and no longer introvert or extrovert); for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”? (Gal. 3:27-28)

How do Hellenist widows and Hebrew widows come together in the faith-community’s daily distribution of food? (Acts 6:1-7)  How do those who belong to Paul, those who belong to Apollos, and those who belong to Cephas ALL belong to Christ?  (1 Cor. 1:10-17).  How do members who prefer traditional worship and those who prefer contemporary worship maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?

In a world lauding diversity, our witness as the church will be this unusual unity that the world can neither understand nor produce.

N. Keith Smith

Happy All Hallows’ Eve and Day

These final days of October are putting us Virginians in a Kierkegaardian-type state of existential fear and dread.  A hurricane called “Frankenstorm” has hit us hard.  We are also being slammed with TV political ads, robocalls, mailed flyers, Tweets, and knocks on the front door, making sure that we remain on high alert.  This is “the most important election of our lifetime,” we are being warned, on which everything about our country hangs in the balance.  Finally, it’s almost Halloween.  The zombies came out this past weekend for their annual walk through Carytown here in Richmond, reminding us (as though we had forgotten) that our world is filled with danger, darkness, evil, and death.

This is why I am looking forward to October 31.  It will be All Hallows’ Eve.  None of my Baptist family members and friends will be celebrating it with me, nor will anyone be talking about “the real meaning of Halloween,” or saying things like “Let’s keep the Hallows (saints) in Halloween.”  However, I learned years ago in seminary that the Christian church has its own calendar.  The times and seasons of God are not the times and seasons of the modern-postmodern age, the secular culture, political movements, national government, international affairs, local weather, or even individual free choice.  Therefore, those of us who are in church ministry must teaching our congregants to observe these holy days, and how to track their lives according to the theological gospel represented in this calendar.  Personally, I am far more fearful about the church becoming tradition-less and losing its distinctive history, identity, and mission than I am about the convergence of a hurricane, presidential election, and Halloween.

All Hallows’ Eve (October 31) is the day before All Hallows’ Day, or All Saints’ Day (November 1).  This is the time for remembering and honoring all the saints, known and unknown, who are the departed faithful.  These men and women went before us, bearing witness in their own times and places to the holiness of God in Jesus Christ.  They are now that “great cloud of witnesses,” surrounding us as we attempt to do here and now what they did then and there.

All Hallows’ Eve and Day assume that an enduring, mystical bond exists between the saints who are living and the saints who are dead.  This is the communio sanctorum, or “communion of saints.”  For some, this conjures up images of ghosts or spirits; but I interpret it as the truth that believers today participate in the same Christ and share the same faith with believers who are no longer with us.  We are one with them, and they are one with us, in yearning for the completion of God’s salvation in the Kingdom of Christ. The beliefs, understandings, and practices of our faith-ancestors have been passed along to us, and are now embedded in us as our spiritual-theological-ethical DNA.  In addition, residues of their faith became flesh in  their human words, and these writings are now our rich inheritance.

So, how will I observe and celebrate All Hallows’ Eve and Day?  How will I commune with the saints, remembering and honoring them?  First, I will pray a prayer of thanksgiving.  I will thank God for those who deeply instilled their faith in me (such as my mother Virginia and my home church pastor D. H. Daniel).  I will thank God for my seminary professors (especially Frank Stagg and Eric Rust), who loved the Lord with all their minds.  Their minds still fill and teach mine.  I will add to this growing list the names of Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Isaiah, and Paul, whose faith still shapes and directs me.  Finally, I will thank God for the witness of such theological greats as Augustine, Luther, Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr, Newbigin, and Neuhaus.  I am surrounded by their witness through their writings, like a “great cloud.”

While everyone is out trick-or-treatin’, or attending a Halloween costume party, I plan to settle down in my easy chair with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s  Sanctorum Communio, his doctoral dissertation and first published work.  I read it last year, but want to return to his “positive presentation” on the church in chapter five, where he writes about “the church-community that could not bear anything, were it not borne by Christ.”  I need to hear that.  I need to commune for a while with this martyred saint, especially during these days of fear and dread, facing a hurricane, a national election, the fiscal cliff, terrorist attacks, and a host of other dangers, both real and imagined.  I need to be encouraged to a stronger eschatological hope and persevering faithfulness:  Let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)

Happy All Hallows’ Eve and Day!

N. Keith Smith

%d bloggers like this: