Two random internet posts got me thinking this week.
First, a friend recently forwarded me an article from the Barna group in which they argue that America is more post-Christian today that it was two years ago. The United States has often been known as a Christian nation with a high percentage of citizens self-identifying as Christian in national studies. Even if that self-identification is more cultural than life transformational, it still seems advantageous to be in a place that claims Christianity as opposed to one that does not. Yet statistics are currently showing the United States is increasingly post-Christian. Not only are there few people self-identifying as Christians, but even with those that do still claim Christianity, their actions aren’t displaying any commitment. Church attendance is down. Giving to churches is down. Spending time weekly reading scripture and praying is down. According to Barna, in a two-year period from 2013-2015, the percentage of people who qualify as post-Christian rose 7% for a total of 44% of the population. Alarming numbers to say the least.
Second, I recently was given the link to a TED talk from 2012 done by film maker Andrew Stanton about the clues to a good story. Stanton worked for Pixar and helped create the stories for some tremendous films such as Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E. Stanton presented some interesting information about what goes in to a good story. He talked about how story telling is like joke telling, everything must be leading up to the punch line. He spoke of the importance of making the audience work for the reward, and how you shouldn’t give every single detail but instead allow the audience to put “2 and 2 together.” But one of his main suggestions was the role of the story-teller to make the audience care. If a story is going to be powerful, or even just one people want to listen to, the story-teller has to somehow convey the story in a way that the audience cares about the story. If they don’t care, they won’t listen.
I wonder if there is a connection between these two “random” internet posts. As one whose educational research has focused partially on the story of the Bible, I would argue that the story of scripture is a compelling story. God created a good world. It was a world for God to share love with. Sin entered that world and disrupted the good intentions, but God was not content to allow sin to have the last word. Instead, God started the mission of redemption, to redeem and restore what was lost. One day, that story will end with the new creation, in which God creates a new heaven and new earth and the redeemed enjoy life with the Creator the way it was meant to be. That’s a compelling story.
The problem is, we don’t always tell the story in a compelling way. Kendra Creasy Dean, in her book Almost Christian (which uses research from a large sociological study of teens and religion) argues that one of the reasons teenagers and young adults are leaving the church is because we (current adults in the church) haven’t given them a story compelling enough to make them stay. We’ve watered down the message so much to get them in the door, and to try to engage them, that the story doesn’t mean enough to them to make them want to stay. If Stanton was listening he might say we haven’t given them a reason to care.
Perhaps people are leaving the church, or simply identifying as post-Christian, because we in the church haven’t given them a reason to care. The story is a compelling story, but perhaps we haven’t shared it in a compelling way, to make it feel like it matters. Or perhaps we aren’t even telling the story at all. In some places, evangelism has such negative connotations that it’s almost avoided as sin. No one is going to care if we don’t share the story.
Like many missiologists, I personally believe the post-Christian status of our culture is an excellent opportunity for the church to practice discipleship in a way that matters to the world. It is times like this, when a story from creation to new creation becomes a powerful alternative to the success story of the world. Our culture longs to care about something beyond themselves. We, in the church, have that compelling story to share. It is a story of a God who gives our lives meaning and purpose as God’s representatives to the world. People want to hear that story. We just have to be willing to share it.