September 30, 2020

Do churches and numbers mean anything?

How much comfort should America take from the fact that we are a land of churches and large congregations? Does the presence of churches- especially megachurches- imply the “discipling” of Americans into a Christian faith that effects lives and culture? Do the crowds we see filling churches, stadiums and Christian events really signal a “Christian soul” in our culture?

Philosopher and ethicist David Gushee penned some thoughts about this in Christian Century magazine a while back. He was meditating on the relationship of visible Christianity- i.e. churches and numbers of people identifying themselves as Christians- to the genocide in Rwanda in the last decade. His words need to be considered by American Christians whio take great comfort in numbers.

April marks the ten-year anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda, a catastrophic mass slaughter which claimed 850,000 lives in three months. Ten years later, Christian reflection must focus on the role Rwandan Christians played in the swiftest and in some ways most brutal genocide of the 20th century.

Rwanda was the most heavily Christianized country in Africa. Some 90 percent of the people identified themselves as Christians. The Roman Catholic Church, to which 65 percent of the population belonged, played a huge role in Rwandan society. Christian churches, seminaries, schools and other institutions were sprinkled throughout the land. And yet all of this Christianity did not prevent genocide, a genocide which leading church officials did little to resist, in which a large number of Christians participated, and in which, according to African Rights, more people “died in churches and parishes than anywhere else.”

How could this be? Christianity should produce justice and love; it should certainly not produce genocide. So I believe and so I have taught.

But a study of the Holocaust, and now of the Rwandan genocide, has led me to realize that the presence of churches in a country guarantees nothing. The self-identification of people with the Christian faith guarantees nothing. All of the clerical garb and regalia, all of the structures of religious accountability, all of the Christian vocabulary and books, all of the schools and seminaries and parish houses and Bible studies, all of the religious titles and educational degrees–they guarantee nothing.

Careful examination of the role of the churches in Rwanda as well as in Nazi Germany reveals some heartbreaking truths.

First, it cannot be assumed that the Christian faith is taught in such a way as to emphasize love of neighbor (all neighbors) and respect for human life. No agency on earth has ever been able to control what is actually taught in a local church on a given Sunday morning. A variety of bastardized versions of the Christian message, including hateful ones, have been and continue to be communicated in congregations all over the world. This is true both in churches where authoritative (and sometimes authoritarian) church hierarchies supposedly have great power to control what happens in the local church, and in decentralized communions in which the local minister has the final say. Either way, the teaching of the Christian churches lands all over the map, from richly faithful to blandly mediocre to dreadfully immoral.

Second, it cannot be assumed that the people gathered to hear the Word proclaimed and to participate in the sacraments are serious about the Christian faith. People come to church for a wide variety of reasons. They bring widely varying levels of receptivity to the truth that leaders communicate from the pulpit and the altar. They bring widely varying moral and spiritual capacities. Jesus himself said that the seed of the gospel is scattered on all different kinds of ground; only one of the four kinds of soil that he mentions has the quality needed for fruitfulness (Mark 4). In light of Auschwitz and Rwanda, that sounds about right. Narrow is the road that leads to salvation; few there are who enter it.

Third, it cannot be assumed that all of the self-identified Christian people (baptized, born-again, converted, members–whatever criteria or name you want to use) gathered in these churches are subject to the influence of the Holy Spirit. I cannot believe that what the Bible says about the work of the Spirit of God is erroneous. But what must be admitted is that there is quite a gap between the list of “Christians” on church rolls or in church pews and the much smaller list of Christians in whom the Spirit of God is working.