Despite Negative Press and a Drop in the Polls, is God Making a Comeback?
by Arin Gencer
About a year ago, a Pew Research Center report revealed that a rapidly growing number of Americans didn’t identify with any religion, jumping to 20 percent of the public and one-third of adults younger than 30. But, a quick scan of the country’s cultural landscape suggests Americans do have a keen interest in—if not a passion for—God and spiritual things. From books to television to the digital realm, religious subjects and themes surround us. Some books like Zealot, God is Not Great and The God Delusion question its relevance, while many other sources offer a more positive viewpoint.
A glance at the New York Times best-seller list shows Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus held the top spot for more than a month in 2013. Proof of Heaven, a neurosurgeon’s account of his otherworldly experience while lying in a coma, resided on the list for a year and, along with the devotional Jesus Calling, was among the top overall sellers of the first quarter of 2013, according to Publisher’s Weekly.
Programs with religious themes have popped up all over cable television in the past few years, including The American Bible Challenge on the Game Show Network and The Bible miniseries, which debuted on the History Channel in March 2013 with 13.1 million viewers—reportedly the biggest audience for a cable broadcast at that point of the year. The show became the top-selling miniseries of all time after its home-video release, and an NBC sequel is in the works.
Online, the 2012 YouTube sensation “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” has had more than 26 million views and led to a corresponding book, Jesus > Religion, released last October. GodTube, the Christian answer to YouTube, continues to see tens of thousands of hits, while monthly Google searches for “God,” “Jesus” and “Christianity” surge. And, the Bible app YouVersion has millions of users across the country.
“There’s been a growing gulf between formal religion and what people might call spirituality—it’s very much an individual thing,” says William Johnsson, who leads interfaith relations for the North American Division (NAD) and teaches world religions at Loma Linda University (Calif.). “In fact, spirituality is being manifested in all sorts of ways. …There is a big tendency toward individuals seeking after God, or seeking in small groups rather than churches.”
Seeking Answers and Authenticity
For Raj Attiken, retired Ohio Conference president, and others, the reasons behind the popularity of God and religious subjects, even as fewer affiliate with a particular religion, vary. Our interconnected world has become smaller, exposing people to forms of spirituality beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition dominating Western culture, Attiken says, which may drive some to seek God (or a god).
The trend may also reflect a realization that science, technology, reason and experience don’t satisfy, and that there must be something more, he says—as well as people’s attempts to make sense of national and global calamities and crises in recent years.
Generational differences, from the baby boomers to the Millennials, are driving this shift as well, says Dave Gemmell, associate director of the NAD Ministerial Department. “Every new generation has to express faith in their own unique setting,” he says. “Millennials, by and large, have not accepted the cultural setting of boomers … and don’t attend traditional church.”
But, this doesn’t mean they have no interest in God. “There is among our [Seventh-day] Adventist young people a searching for authentic Christianity—to not be satisfied with traditional answers, but to really study the Bible and go deep,” Johnsson says.
Yet relativism, the notion that there is no such thing as truth, also plays into whether people identify with a certain religion, says Stewart Pepper, an evangelist and the pastor of Mountain View Conference’s Charleston (W.Va.) church. “If there’s no such thing as right and wrong, if the truth is what you make it, why would I identify with a denomination that spouts truths?” Pepper says. “People without a clear sense of truth tend to lack commitment.”
Meeting People Where They Are
In a world where organized religion holds less sway, Adventists must find fresh ways—and patience—to make connections. Those ways may involve less focus on selling our faith and more on creating “the conditions and environment in which a person meets and falls in love with Jesus,” says Attiken, who recently authored Refreshed, a monograph about making the Ohio Conference more Christocentric. The conference, for example, emphasizes that “the church must turn its face outside its own walls and immerse itself in the community,” he says. “Jesus immersed himself into the brokenness and into the filth and messiness of our humanity.”
Just paying attention to the people around us can allow God to open our eyes to their need and, in His time, show us opportunities to share Jesus, says Season Cromwell, evangelism director at Chesapeake Conference’s New Hope church in Fulton, Md. “Jesus doesn’t need to be sold. All we have to be is honest and love somebody and show them the truth,” she says. “It’s not about my success in being able to convert someone. It’s about Jesus.”
Cromwell launched a class at New Hope last fall that is specifically designed to offer a place for people to just ask questions about God and Christianity. A lot of times, people “want to see if that’s what they want,” she says. “They don’t want to be indoctrinated; they want to check it out. This is an opportunity to do that.”
Pastor Pepper has found getting people to believe the Adventist message isn’t the real difficulty so much as getting commitments beyond that point. People are drawn by relationships, by being able to connect and identify with others. We need to engage people outside of evangelistic meetings and Bible studies, he suggests. “If you want to make your church outreach more effective, you have to have a social life,” he says. “Don’t bring them to a party to tell them about the Sabbath. Just tell them, ‘We’re going to have fun tonight.’”
The world may be turning away from organized religion, but a thirst for the divine clearly remains. “We have much to offer the world,” Johnsson says of the Adventist Church. “But, what it comes down to is this: living close to the Lord, letting the Holy Spirit simply use us.”
by Arin Gencer