"We are no longer a Christian nation." That was a quote by President Barack Obama in a June 28, 2006, speech that riled many of my contemporaries.
Those were not his prepared remarks. He had intended to say, "Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation." Amazing orator that he is, he corrected himself on the fly adding, "We are no longer a Christian nation — at least not just."
It was an awkward correction that any public speaker can understand. Its partial quotation made headlines and was denounced from pulpits. But he was right. I love this country and appreciate our godly heritage, but many miles have been traveled since then. We have, for some time, been a post-Christian nation.
According to statistics from churchleadership.org, every year more than 4,000 churches close their doors in the U.S. Every year, 2.7 million church members fall into inactivity. From 1990 to 2000, the combined membership of all Protestant denominations in the U.S. declined by almost 5 million members (9.5 percent). At the turn of the last century (1900), there was a ratio of 27 churches per 10,000 people. In 2000, there were 11 churches per 10,000 people in America.
In fact, the United States now ranks third behind China and India in the number of people who are not professing Christians. Social battles are being lost and time-honored Christian morals are falling like tin soldiers. What is the church to do?
This is a good time to remind American Christians that the United States of America is not the Kingdom of God. We are to be first and foremost ambassadors of God's Kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:20). We are patriotic Americans, but only sojourners here (1 Peter 2:11-12).
That does not mean we should leave the nation to swirl down the drain. We have God-given, inalienable rights, recognized by our Constitution (not given by the Constitution) of which we should take advantage. But our first loyalty and allegiance belong to God, then country.
Sin — rebellion against God — has been around for a long time. It takes many forms against which the church must make a stand. But the church must recognize that our battle is against sin, not sinners. Paul reminds us that the war isn't against flesh and blood but is spiritual in nature (Ephesians 6:12). Our weapons, therefore, must be spiritual.
The answer to darkness is light (John 12:46). The answer to persecution is love (Matthew 5:44). The answer to falsehood is truth (Ephesians 4:15). And when God gives us "spiritual armor" to wear in battle, it is not for aggression but for our protection (Ephesians 6:10-18).
The only offensive weapon we are given is the Word of God. God's Word will not return to him without accomplishing that which he intends (Isaiah. 55:11). His word is powerful. Christians are not on task to defend God's word. It needs no defense. It is true and will prove true, like a light in a dark room.
Jesus taught His disciples: "... Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16)." What does this look like in a post-Christian world? Probably very similar to what it looked like in a pre-Christian world. Two pastoral suggestions for your consideration:
Pray. It is not our responsibility to persuade. We've been given a "ministry of reconciliation" — we urge others to reconcile with God — but we can't make it happen (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). When Paul discusses folks who have a "veil" over their eyes in relation to truth, his directive was that we pray God removes the veil (2 Corinthians 3:12-18). Prayer really does work.
Love. This is the inescapable mandate for you and me as followers of Jesus — to love God (Mark 12:30), to love the lost (2 Corinthians 5:14), to love one another (John 13:34), to love the misguided and confused (2 Corinthians 2:15), to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:39), even to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). We're not called to fix (only God can do that). We're not called to judge. We're called to love.
Our country needs the hope and peace only Jesus provides.
If the church does a poor job praying and showing love to the world, where will they go? They must turn to him. Jesus is the anchor of the soul for which we humans search (Hebrews 6:19). Jesus holds the better promises we humans need (Hebrews 8:6). As the church, we must resist burning bridges and building walls. The church must build bridges and open gates for all to come to Jesus on his terms, for only there do we find what the soul truly desires and needs.
It is incumbent upon us, as Christians, to be strong in the Spirit, to rightly handle the Word of God, to be prepared in season and out of season (it is "in season" by the way), to have holes on the knees of our jeans and to be regular faces around the throne of God. We need to get back to church every week so that we're empowered for the challenges ahead. And we need to be the loving, hopeful, happy body of Christ.
James A. Mann, Ph.D., is a Denton native and the lead pastor of New Life Church of Denton. He is an assistant professor of New Testament at Liberty University School of Divinity located in Lynchburg, Virginia.