On Faith and Culture: Breathing New Life Into American Religion

(TFC) – Few forces in recorded history can match organized religion when it comes to sheer influence. Over the last couple of thousand years, the Christian faith has seen empires rise and fall, helped shape the western world and established itself as the “unofficial” state religion of the United States of America.

At a time when the nation is more polarized than ever, the increasingly progressive ideas shared by many Americans place them squarely at odds with the Church’s scripture-informed worldview.

Many who are unable to reconcile their beliefs with Conservative Christian ideals have chosen to disassociate themselves with the ageless organization. Faced with the prospect of losing its place at the core of American culture, the church must now reinvent itself in the eyes of the younger generations.

It won’t necessarily be easy.

Down but Not Out

While things might not look so promising for the Church at the moment, don’t expect an institution that has remained relevant for thousands of years to wilt at the first sign of danger. The Christian following is a sweeping survey of American society — and while many who follow the church are reluctant to change their views, thought leaders are coming forward to challenge the status quo.

One of them is 30-time best-selling Christian author Eugene Peterson, who recently published a book he says could be his last. In an interview with Religionnews.com, Peterson pulled no punches in expressing his distaste for Donald Trump and frustration with the current direction of the Church in America.

Peterson Believes the Church Can Do Better

Peterson chose the recent rise of megachurches as an example of how he feels Christianity has gone astray. How, he asks, can an institution based on community operate on a scale so grand? The author and pastor is quick to point out that in his congregation, he knew each member by name. How can the pastor of a 5,000-member megachurch hope to know his disciples well?

On the topic of homosexuality, Peterson displayed openness and recounted stories of gay and lesbian members of his own church. “I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do,” he says.

When asked if he would be willing to minister a gay marriage, his answer was an uncomplicated “yes.”

If a voice so esteemed in Christianity can promote these new-age ideas, there is hope for the Christian church. Remember that, at its best, the church can be a restorative force in the world. Christian missionaries have helped bring various services like health care to struggling corners of the globe, and the church is often a source of structure and strength for those who must overcome difficult family lives or impoverished living conditions.

Turning a Corner for Christianity

It is clear, though, that if the Church continues to operate the way it has, many people will continue to disassociate themselves from it and an entire generation may turn its back on the Church. More than half of all millennials who grew up as members of a church have already dropped out. What can be changed to make the Christian faith relevant for young people again?

One way is to communicate authentically. The opposite of the commercial megachurches Eugene Peterson so dislikes is an honest conversation between pastors and followers about their relationships with God. Millennials don’t care if that happens in a specially designated building or a van on a road trip — but they can’t stand to hear the “same old lines” that resonated with their parents’ generation.

It’s a back-to-basics approach that endorses meeting in everyday buildings or even homes instead of elaborate cathedrals. It emphasizes content rather than aggrandizement and spectacle.

Faith (Not Business) First

To be a Christian is to follow the teachings of Christ. To imagine Jesus preaching from the pulpit of a vaulted megachurch seems completely contradictory — but the Christian organization has been seduced by a slow evolution into something less like a church and more like a business.

Millennials see through the glamor of these attempts to merchandise the teachings of Christ — but they aren’t opposed to making a difference in the world. Perhaps it’s the effect of being the first generation with access to the 24-hour news cycle, but technology has given America’s youth a window into how their actions shape the world around them and they want to leave a positive mark.

If the Church can provide the structure for young people to make a difference in their society, it might just start to see those attendance numbers turn around. Doing good works shouldn’t be unfamiliar to an organization rooted in the teachings of a martyr — but practicing what you preach is a challenge the Church hasn’t always lived up to.

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Bridging the Generation Gap

Today’s young people have gotten to know Christianity at a dark time in the religion’s history. The scandals of the 1990s and subsequent clashes with the progressive movement have shaped a stereotype of the Church as a thinly-veiled money machine with its fingers in every corner of American society.

Ideas are created by, and often die with, generations, and if the church can’t right its image in the eyes of millennial Americans, their children will be born into a culture where Christianity is no longer the norm. That’s a situation even the Church may not be able to recover from.

Reaching today’s youth and even the progressive-minded middle-aged Americans who could potentially be role models for their children and students means accepting that the values of any religion can change with time. If good works and selflessness are truly at the core of the Christian faith, the church will listen to the people of the world and adapt its culture to fit a changing civilization.