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Commentary: John 3:16 vs. 'religious marketplace'

A UMNS Commentary
By The Rev. John Edward Nuessle*
Feb. 29, 2008

The Rev. John Edward Nuessle

The new U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, offers a picture of early 21st-century American religious attitudes that is not surprising, at least to those of us who track religious life along Main Street U.S.A.

The survey results suggest that a growing proportion of Americans view their faith choices as just that––personal choices made primarily to enhance personal lives. One commentator, quoted by The New York Times, stated that the religious groups gaining adherents offer "personal religion" in contrast, one assumes, to shared faith.

What we have is a growing religious marketplace, a supermarket of faith options and products. Many Americans seem to believe that they are each personally responsible for establishing Divine Truth based on personal needs and inclinations at any particular moment. It is much like the television ad that asserts that if one dislikes a car or a spouse, "get a new one." Faith traditions are coming to look suspiciously like replaceable brands.

Too harsh a judgment? Consult the Pew Forum research: "More than one-quarter of American adults (28 percent) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion––or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44 percent of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether."

The issue here is not so much that persons leave the faith of their childhood. The issue is the expanding evidence that religious belief and religious practice are seen as satisfying individual needs, wants and desires. This perspective is a distortion of at least one major religious faith––Christianity––and of my United Methodist heritage.

Not about 'me'

Christianity is a communal faith. It promotes and celebrates life together in faith, consisting of shared belief and interaction with the community and collective service beyond itself. Christianity is based not on personal choice but on Scripture, church tradition, experience and reason, the last two being both personal and collective. At least that is how United Methodism expresses it. Faith in the Christian understanding is not "my" possession to be traded in for a new model; rather it is the truth in which God claims "me," "us" and the world. Further, Christianity is about the needs of others, not my needs.

“I am … concerned about offering the new life and hope of the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ to the millions of Americans who, apparently, attend worship each Sunday under the misguided notion that their religious faith is essentially about themselves.”

The Gospel of John 3:16-17, for example, reminds us that God so loved the world––not just me, not just you, but all of us together at the same time. The world. That wise evangelist, St. John, goes on to state that the revealed truth that God did not send Jesus, the Christ, his Son, into the world, to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved––that is, made better for the future of all. No mere personal religion here––not a faith for "me" but for all humanity.

John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of Methodism, railed throughout his long life against those who defined Christianity as a "me" religion. No, he said, it is both personal and social. Wesley could not conceive of there being any validity in a form of Christianity that was not corporate and directed to the needs of people in the world rather than to fulfilling "my" needs. Again and again he insisted that the test of personal relationships to God is measured by how believers treat other people.

I am glad to know, as the Pew survey reports, that 16 percent of the U.S. population has no explicit religious affiliation. I consider it a responsibility of my church and myself to invite these unaffiliated people into a meaningful relationship with the loving and gracious God of my faith. I am equally concerned about offering the new life and hope of the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ to the millions of Americans who, apparently, attend worship each Sunday under the misguided notion that their religious faith is essentially about themselves. An individual church member, a congregation or a denomination that thinks that Christianity is about "me" is in dire need of conversion to the Gospel. 

Extending Christ's love

The most meaningful Christian activities revolve around reaching out to this dark and hurting world with the loving hands of Christ, the cup of cool water, the grains of wheat plucked on the Sabbath, the fish cooked on the lakeside, the healing touch of love and the redeeming cross of Christ that points to new life, a joyful burden that is our personal and social obligation to carry into the Kingdom.

“I pray that the Pew survey will shock United Methodists and all American Christians into abandoning the religious marketplace.”
Personal religion that makes me feel good about being me? There is none of that in Christianity. Faithful Christians have and offer the cross and the empty grave as redemptive symbols of hope and new life for all in God's world. It is not about "me"!

I pray that the Pew survey will shock United Methodists and all American Christians into abandoning the religious marketplace; that it will motivate us to get right with our faith and our understanding of God. Would that this sociological survey causes us to reclaim our mission, that of proclaiming the biblical, traditional, experiential and rational message of God's grace and truth for the world––doing it together as God's faithful people.

*Nuessle is a staff executive with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and the author of Faithful Witnesses, an upcoming book on United Methodist mission theology that will be available through Cokesbury.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.   

Audio: Study author John Green

“…a high level of change in religious affiliation over the lifetime …”

“Why have mainline Protestant churches declined?”

“The ranks of the unaffiliated have grown substantially …"

Audio: Pew Forum Director Luis Lugo

“… Mainline denominations … relatively older”

“If you rest on your laurels, you're going to be history."

“…Young people have changed across traditions…”

“… Decline of mainline Protestantism compared to evangelicalism.”

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The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

State of the Church Report

Board of Global Ministries

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