The Pew Report and the New Evangelization
Christians in America need a fresh encounter with Jesus Christ, so they can share him with a world that thinks it knows him but doesn't.
Opinions on the Pew Research Center report entitled America’s Changing Religious Landscape multiplied this week after the center threw blood in the water with its subtitle: Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population. While many parroted media reports and opined, my experience has been that few read the report. Those with anti-Christian agendas were eager to crow about the apparent demise of Christianity in America.
As for the Pew Report, there is really nothing new in it. Pastors have long known that Christianity in America is not as deep and committed as it seems to be. We know how big is the challenge in front of us, but maybe the report will help us focus more on meeting that challenge. We need to.
The Fresh Encounter
I write as a Catholic with a love for my Church tradition and teaching. I am well aware of the need for people in the pews to have a fresh encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. Such encounters should then lead to a mature, well-formed adult faith.
In his encyclical The Light of Faith, Pope Francis emphasized the centrality of such an encounter writing, “Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives.” He continued, “Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfillment, and that a vision of the future opens up before us.”
This letter was the joint work of Francis and Benedict, who retired before completing it. The view of Christianity as encounter with Jesus was rooted in Benedict’s writings, as it also was in John Paul II’s. This should come as no surprise. It is the teaching of the Bible and the unbroken tradition.
Christianity is about Some-One, not some-thing. It is about meeting the Risen Jesus Christ and walking with Him. Before the early followers of Jesus were called Christians in Antioch, they were called the Way. (See Acts 9:2, 11:26) Christianity is to inform one’s entire life.
To walk in this Way requires continual encounters with the Lord which should lead the Christian into ongoing formation in the faith — what Benedict, just prior to becoming Pope, referred to as an adult faith.
Such a faith, he affirmed “is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.”
Such a faith is also indispensable if the Christian believer hopes to withstand the hostility of an age that is rejecting God while pretending to acknowledge His existence. The philosopher Alasdair Macintyre once described the state of authentic religious faith in Britain: “The difficulty lies in the combination of atheism in the practice in the life of the vast majority with the profession of either superstition or theism by that same majority. The Creed of the English is that there is no God and that it is wise to pray to Him from time to time.” The Creed of the English of which Macintyre wrote is now the Creed of the West.
There is an expression in Catholic circles, “cradle Catholics,” which refers to those who have been born and raised in the Catholic Church. Cradles do not make one a Christian. Being raised in a Christian tradition is never enough. It cannot assure that the one so raised will choose to respond to the invitations issued by the Lord who reminds us, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). His choice invites our continuing response.
There is another phrase now used in Catholic circles, “the New Evangelization.” It refers the need for a wakeup call in the pews. Only a Church fully alive in the Lord — and filled with His Holy Spirit — can carry out the evangelical mission this age requires.
The Church has always taught that every human being has a right to hear the Gospel. By virtue of being baptized into Jesus Christ, we are enlisted in that evangelizing mission. However, many Christians need to be renewed in their baptismal faith. That happens through a personal and transformational encounter with the Risen Lord. It is strengthened by regular instruction on what it means to live as a Christian. It then requires a lifestyle of encountering Jesus Christ.
The Question to Ask
For years I have proposed to fellow believers that it is time to stop opining over whether we are living in a post-Christian, neo-pagan or post-modernist age. I suggest we are living in a Pre-Christian age. We need to respond to the invitation of this hour. In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed” (2 Cor. 14:5).
We need to test ourselves regularly. Do we burn with the missionary fire that animated the early Christians, the fire of the Holy Spirit? We are approaching the celebration next Sunday of Pentecost in communities that follow a liturgical cycle. We need a New Pentecost. The West staggers under the slavery of sin. The Pew Report isn’t breaking news, but it can be a wake-up call. We need a New Evangelization to bring freedom to an age waiting to be born anew.