Picture this: You are with several of your Christian friends, discussing the latest Saturday Night Live, and how SNL hasn’t been worth anything for two decades at least. Invariably the conversation turns to how SNL is rude and crude and un-spiritually edifying, and how the makers of SNL just don’t get that the vast majority of Americans (80 percent or 90 percent, depending on your favorite pundit) are Christians who can’t relate to the kind of filth they’re putting out.
How do we get that America is 80 or 90 percent Christian? No offense, but you are living in an alternate universe if you think that 80 or 90 percent Christian means that 80 to 90 percent of Americans go to church every Sunday, attend small group, study their Bibles, and are in a meaningful and growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
So you get there by including a whole lot of people who are only marginally Christian, if that. The Southern Baptist Convention has been embroiled in a controversy about the integrity of church size numbers for the past few years, something akin to baseball’s steroid use issues. SBC churches have been inflating their numbers by including in their membership anyone who ever came to their church and filled out a card somewhere along the line. Never mind that the vast majority of these people have never since darkened the doors of these churches.
The same sort of thing plays out on a larger level in evangelicalism as a whole. We think of ourselves as a whole lot bigger than we really are, largely because we include in our ranks anyone who ever showed up at a church service, conference, crusade, youth camp, or other evangelical function and walked the aisle, prayed a prayer, stood up, raised their hand, put their right foot in and shook it all about and did the hokey-pokey and turned themselves around because that’s what it’s all about. Never mind that the vast majority of these people have never come back for anything else. Never mind that the vast majority of these people are only marginally affiliated with us, if that.
Big changes are coming to evangelicalism in the coming decades, and evangelicalism will look a whole lot smaller because a lot of these people who were only marginally with us if that, will become no longer with us at all. Michael Spencer had some things to say about this in a piece he did a couple of years back called “The Coming Evangelical Collapse”.
Not only do you have to include a lot of people who are only marginally with us (if that) to get to 80 or 90 percent, you also have to include a lot of people whose beliefs you may find disagreeable, offensive, bizarre, outlandish, or just plain whacked.
How about the Lutherans? They baptize babies, practice closed communion (some of them, at least), and use real wine for communion (sorry Baptists). You may have to count them to get to 80 or 90 percent Christian.
How about the Catholics? They pray to Mary and send their kids off to Catholic school to get whacked on the head with rulers by nuns. (This explains a lot.) You may have to count them to get to 80 or 90 percent.
How about the Episcopalians and ELCAs? They ordain women, queers, atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Wiccans, Rastafarians, Michael Jackson, and God knows what else. You may have to count them to get to 80 or 90 percent.
How about the other godless liberal mainlines? They cut all the supernatural parts out of the Bible, march for abortion and pass out communion wafers with the rainbow flag on them. You may have to count them to get to 80 or 90 percent.
How about the Mormons? The Jehovah’s Witnesses? The Seventh-Day Adventists? The Moonies? The peeps out in California who drank the Kool-Aid when the comet came through and the ATF burned down their compound? (Sorry, I get my cult-related tragedies mixed up these days.) You may have to count them to get to 80 or 90 percent.
How about Barack Obama? He says he’s Christian but he goes to one of those godless liberal mainline churches and his middle name is Hussein so we all know he’s really a Muslim terrorist and he’s not even an American citizen because we all know his birth certificate was forged. You may have to count him to get to 80 or 90 percent.
How about Fred Phelps? An awful lot of you out there are very uncomfortable with his strident anti-gay rhetoric, and you talk (correctly) about how his church’s activities do not represent what Christianity is about. But you may have to count him to get to 80 or 90 percent.
How about Michael Jackson? Never mind. We have to draw the line somewhere.
How about Rob Bell? He doesn’t believe in hell and John Piper says he’s not a Christian. You may have to count him to get to 80 or 90 percent.
Which leads to another question: If America is a Christian majority, what sort of Christian is it? John Piper says that Rob Bell (and presumably anyone else who is asking the same sort of questions that Rob Bell asks in his latest book) is not Christian. Francis Chan says that lukewarm believers are not Christian. The KJV-only crowd says that anyone who doesn’t use the KJV is not Christian. The Landmark Baptists (there may still be a few of them running around out there somewhere) say that anyone who doesn’t belong to one of their churches isn’t Christian. The Catholics have their own views on Protestants which we don’t need to get into here, while there is no shortage of Reformed-type groups who say that anyone who doesn’t come out of the Catholic church is not Christian. They also say that anyone who doesn’t hold to their formulation of certain doctrines which they claim to be essential but which really aren’t that essential, is not Christian.
And if America is a Christian majority, does that make Christianity any more true? Germany was a Nazi majority back in the 1930s, and look where it got them. If it turns out that America is something less than a Christian majority, does that make Christianity any less true? For the first two centuries of Christianity’s existence, Rome was not a Christian majority by any stretch of the imagination. Christianity should never have even made it out of the first century. But here we are.
C. S. Lewis says in The Screwtape Letters:
…we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means, preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything–even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately, it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations.” You see the little rift? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game.
Prophetic words for our generation. Attempting to use Christianity as a means to an end, even the end of creating a just society, is not a good road to go down.
Finally, could it be that we are just taking ourselves too seriously here? Can we recognize that movies like “Saved!” and “Talladega Nights” and the Landover Baptist website and other such things poke fun at us in ways in which, quite frankly, we deserve to be made fun of?
I haven’t watched SNL in a couple of decades, because, well, it’s been a couple of decades since SNL was decent. But I would be willing to bet that you might actually enjoy it, or at least be a little less bothered by the things you say are non-edifying, if you can watch from the standpoint that, quite frankly, we evangelicals do silly things sometimes and we deserve to be poked fun at. Whether or not there is a Christian majority here in America, there is clearly a sizeable amount of people who believe that evangelicals do stupid things that deserve to be made fun of. The makers of SNL are hip to this, and they will continue to poke fun at us as long as we are doing things that deserve to be made fun of.