Week of October 6, 2013

Todd JonesA survey of our nation’s incoming college freshman class has been a part of American life ever since opinion polling became a kind of social science in our country. The University of Michigan Survey Research Center still conducts this annual randomly chosen sample of incoming freshmen at America’s colleges and universities to gauge what our nation’s college bound teens believe and what is important to them. Alongside of this the Pew Foundation now funds an annual survey that measures and questions students on religious convictions, commitments and affiliations. This year’s opinion polling was revealing of what is happening religiously in America. One third of those incoming freshmen identified themselves as people of faith with ties to the church or synagogue. The vast majority of this group was Christian, reflecting the historic nature of religious life in America, a nation largely founded by Christian people with commitments to the Church. One third of those polled described themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” That is, they had a belief in some kind of God, but they did not practice this faith in any organized way and they demonstrated no commitment to any faith community, neither church nor synagogue.

Interestingly, 43% of this group identified themselves as Christians, even though they had no ties to any church or worshiping community. The surprising part of the survey for many was the final third, who reported themselves as having no religious faith or no ties to any larger community of faith. Pollsters call this growing group of Americans “nones.” The group that is expanding the fastest in America today is those with “none” to report with regard to God or religious affiliation. Interestingly, very few of these people describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. They simply do not care about the whole issue of religion, or the larger question of God.

If you have ever wondered if America is a mission field in desperate need of the Gospel, wonder no more! We are a nation that is adrift religiously, and because of this fact, I would argue that we adrift morally and ethically. Twenty years ago the Notre Dame philosopher Glenn Tinder asked the question in The Atlantic Monthly, “Can we be good without God?” It was a widely read and discussed question, raised by a first rate academic philosopher in a national magazine read by many of our nations brightest and best minds. Tindal argued that is certainly possible “to be good without God,” that is, to be a nation that finds some core of values and ethical standards apart from religion, apart from believing that these values and moral standards are revealed by some Deity, but rather are humanly derived. But he then added honestly, “It is possible, but it has never happened once in human history. There is no precedent for a society or culture that organized and sustained its life without a religious set of moral standards and ethics to guide it.” Not one civilization has ever established itself in a sustaining way without a religious center at its core. The word “religion” itself means “to bind together” and it is still an open question of what will bind our own nation together if we become what it seems we are quickly becoming: a nation with a large segment of our population possessing no religious belief or affiliation.

I am not at all surprised by the findings of the Pew survey. So much in American life has crowded out the church from the place it once held in American society. We are no longer a nation of joiners, as once we were, but rather we are more apt to be people who live our lives unencumbered by commitments and accountability to others. And while we once all knew the Biblical story, a story which provided not only hope, but also one that infused this life with meaning, and gave to people a belief in a life to come, even many self-described Christians do not know that story any longer. We are not only no longer a nation of joiners, we have also ceased to be a nation of readers, and it is hard to be a Christian if you do not read, as it is supremely “a religion of the Book.”

Our mission at First Presbyterian Church is “To know Christ, to make Him known, and to exhibit His love through worship, education and service.” This makes us a church committed to evangelism and the mission of the Church. I honestly believe that there is nothing our nation needs more than it needs the Gospel, because I believe that every life and every community and every nation will be enriched by what Jesus Christ and Christian faith offers. Only Jesus is large enough and true enough to gather this fragmented, conflicted and all too violent world to the place of peace and justice. And only Christian cultures are civil enough to work alongside of people of other faiths and people with no faith at all to build a better world. I am more committed than ever to living and proclaiming the Gospel. How about you?

With Love and Prayers,

Todd Jones

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