Rekindling the Faith

from The Atlantic, courtesy Michael Conroy AP, click to link

image embedded from The Atlantic, courtesy Michael Conroy AP, click to link

sermon for World Communion Sunday …. 2 Timothy 1:1-7, 13-14 …. There is a new bestselling book that some are describing as especially illuminating for this election season. It’s called “The End of White Christian America,” and was written by Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C. I haven’t made it through the book’s 240 pages. But, this week, I read articles about it in The New York Times[1], The Atlantic[2], and the Washington Post[3]. I’ve seen enough of its text and illustrations to have a feel for its content.

Analyzing collected data, Jones says two features jump out at him.  First, the proportion of white Christians in our nation has dropped to 47%, no longer a majority of the population. Second, the number of religiously unaffiliated is growing, and comprises more than one in five Americans today.

A chart of religious affiliation by age provides one view of the trend. Among citizens age 65 and up, 67% are white and Christian. Among citizens under age 30, only 29% are white and Christian.

Jones makes the case that many of today’s most heated political disagreements surrounding things like same-gender marriage and racial justice should be understood against the backdrop of anxiety about change felt by white Christians.

From the perspective of this Presbyterian pastor, not all the news is negative. If you take a broader view of all ethnicities, 71% of Americans still self-identify as Christian. In recent years, the rate of decline has accelerated in the group partially constituted by Fundamentalist congregations , a phenomenon that seems to disprove the old thesis that if only churches would be more faithful to nineteenth-century theology about biblical interpretation, and the subservient place of women and minority groups, then God would bless them with growth. Among millennials (born between 1982 and 2004) about 70% believe that young people have been alienated by churches that have been too judgmental.[4]

Actually, a report like this gives me hope. It tells me that there is a still an important place for a congregation that emphasizes God’s grace is greater than all our sin, practices an open table for all who trust in Jesus Christ, and encourages a movement toward a life of humble obedience to God and faithful service to one’s neighbor.  In a community in which several startup congregations with a Fundamentalist theological orientation have taken root, I believe there is still a meaningful future for mainline congregations like historic First Presbyterian Church, if we stay true to that part of our mission that focuses on passing on and nurturing Christian faith in our children, youth and adults.

When the Apostle Paul wrote to his young protégé Timothy, he could not possibly count on support from the political leaders or cultural customs of his society. Romans were pretty good about counting people  (you’ll remember a census was the reason that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth) so we know that the population of the Roman Empire exceeded 50 million, of whom nearly one-million lived at Rome. If the Public Research Religion Institute had existed, then “Christian” Rome would have amounted to a fraction of one percent.

Paul’s concern about the future of the Church is clearly visible in his letters to Timothy, which have been called “third generation” correspondence.  “The second generation was represented by Timothy’s mother Eunice, and the first by his grandmother Lois.  Young Timothy (was part) of that third generation.  Many in the churches they served were born of Christian parents.  The problems of transmitting faith from generation to generation were for the first time beginning to be understood.”[5] The fervency of faith for the first generation of Christians was, by the advent of the third generation, fading into complacency.

Timothy had traveled with Paul to Asia Minor, and was left in charge of the new church at Ephesus.  Now Timothy is far from home, and without the benefit of his support network of family and friends.  His ministry presents challenges and exerts pressures of many kinds.   From his prison in Rome Paul offers encouragement and instruction to Timothy in Ephesus so that the faith that Timothy received as a child will not disappear as an adult.

This is World Communion Sunday. Today we celebrate our relationships to Christians of all times, places, languages, and cultures.  As we celebrate the present and remember the past, our scripture reading prompts us to ponder a question:  what does it take to rekindle the gift of faith in each new generation?

The Swiss neo-orthodox theologian Emil Brunner, a contemporary of Karl Barth,  once wrote some words that I think are helpful in answering a question like that.  He said: “It is a fact of experience that only a small minority come to a living faith directly through the reading of the Holy Scriptures.  Most of those to whom faith is granted will confess that this took place through the witness of living persons, through the viva vox ecclesiae (living voice of the church) …. Jesus Christ is not imprisoned within the pages of the Bible; He is the living, present Lord of the Church, hence His revelation also is a living and present event, which takes place in and through the Church.”[6]

Brunner’s point about the living voice of the church is like the story told by Kenda Creasy Dean, professor of youth ministry at Princeton Seminary.  She recalls a news story from the autumn of 2001 about a small band of scientists who took to the skies in ultralight aircraft.[7]  Their purpose was to lead a group of young whooping cranes on a 1,250-mile migration from Wisconsin to Florida.

These young birds had been reared in captivity, and lacked whooping crane parents who could lead them safely south when the cold set in.  The need to migrate is genetically programmed into the birds, but the direction and destination are taught by the parent.  The destinations and routes of whooping crane migrations evolve over thousands of years – but they exist only in the memories of the birds that use them.

Dean uses this science experiment to point out similarities in the life of faith.  Human beings, she says, are created to make a journey toward God who made us.  The practices of faith establish the migratory path.  But we can only learn this route from those who have traveled before us.

If you’ve been around the Church for a while, you’ve probably heard the rallying cry: The Church is always one generation away from extinction.

That statement was true in the third generation of the Christian Church.  When Paul charges Timothy to guard the good treasure entrusted to you, it was possible only because earlier Lois and Eunice made the commitments necessary to pass that treasure from their generation to Timothy’s generation.

The statement is just as true today.  Remember that the charts of researchers tell us mainly about a stretch of time from past to present.  Like the dreams of old Roman emperors, they suggest a future that may come to pass, but the future is Christ’s to claim and reshape. Our practices as a church here, at Goshen School, and at Ridge View Road will make possible the spiritual success of those who follow us. We can’t afford to neglect modeling Christian disciplines like study and prayer, worship and fellowship, sharing the faith and serving others.

When we do these things, we’ll be practicing what Paul preaches: remembering the faith of our parents and grandparents, holding to the standard of sound teaching we’ve received, guarding the good treasure entrusted to us.

[1] Sam Tanehaus, “What Do This Season’s Political Books Tell Us About the Election?” The New York Times Book Review, 20 June 2016, accessed 28 Sept. 2016

[2] Robert P. Jones, “The Eclipse of White Christian America,’ The Atlantic, 16 July 2016, accessed 28 Sept. 2016,

[3] John Sides, “White Christian America is dying, The Washington Post, 15 August 2016, accessed 28 Sept. 2016

[4] Sides, “White Christian America is dying.”

[5] Thomas C. Oden, First and Second Timothy and Titus, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989, p. 1.

[6] Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason, trans. Olive Wyon, Part One, Section II-C-10.

[7] Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004, p. 174.



~ by JohnH1962 on October 2, 2016.