Earlier this year, I attended a Buddhist wedding ceremony – my first time attending a non-Christian wedding. It wasn’t much different from any other wedding I attended because, ultimately, a wedding is a wedding.
Toward the end of the reception, the bride was sharing her heart with the attendants, thanking everyone for coming and partly sharing why she became Buddhist. She said she grew up Christian like most people in her native country. She shared a story of when she first moved to America, she attended an all-day event with her daughter. They were both hungry and a Muslim family shared some food with them. She said years later, when she was recently divorced and moved to a new neighborhood with her children, Hindu neighbors would mow her lawn for her. These interactions with people of different cultures and religions opened her eyes to the good in people of other faiths and led her to explore other religions.
A recent study from MIT found that the percentage of Americans with no religious preference has risen 18 percent in the last 20 years. The study attributed at least 20 percent of that drop-off in religious affiliation to the rise of the internet because it “allows more personal interaction with people of other religions.”
Though the study included all religions, I think a large portion of those losing their faith were Christians.
The MIT study and the bride’s comments at the wedding have me thinking: Have we created a form of Christianity that is afraid of other religions? Have we, through the pulpit, ministries, or the Christian culture created an elitist mind-set that believes no one outside of Christ could possibly be good? Have we set up our children for culture shock when they interact with people of other faiths or face intellectual challenges in classrooms? Have we developed a simple-minded worldview within Christendom that views everyone outside of the faith as evil?
In a way, it’s hard not to develop an elitist ideology in Christianity. The Word of God says Jesus is the only way to the Father, the only way to salvation, and every other option is false. No gray area there. While that doctrine is sound, without balance and proper emphasis in other areas, the church can raise children and parishioners with a disdain and phobia of people of other faiths.
There are two major, false beliefs created when we do that:
1. We create a belief that atheists, agnostics or people of other religions are our enemies, when in truth, people are not our enemies, but rather ideologies, false doctrines, the system of the world, and Satan.
2. The belief that only Christians can be good, and “good” is usually measured by good works. I know plenty of people outside the faith who are “better people” than many Christians and do way more good works. While good works are essential to Christianity, they aren’t exclusive to it. Furthermore, we must be careful to remember that our hope and our righteousness is not in our good deeds, but in the work of Jesus Christ alone.
Though these problems aren’t pervasive in Christianity, they are contributing factors to the problem of millennials leaving the church, and will continue to be a problem for youth in church today.
So how do we resolve this issue? By developing believers properly by focusing on love. Love doesn’t sit in church and memorize doctrine, it engages individuals and culture. It’s exactly how Jesus lived and taught His disciples.
When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, He knew she was of another faith and it was culturally unacceptable for Him to speak with her, but He engaged in communication anyway. With confidence, faith, and openness, He spoke with her and listened to her. When she made assumptions about Him because of His faith – “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim the place we must worship is in Jerusalem” – He explained the truth – “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:19-21).
Jesus’ way of faith didn’t shy away from those outside nor did He see them as enemies; He embraced them, interacted with them, and conversed with them. Jesus understood other people’s beliefs, listened to their stories, and brought the truth in a way that was welcoming, inviting, and revealing.
Maybe the larger issue of the exodus from the faith is what we’re emphasizing. Are we more focused on teaching a set of beliefs and practices than helping people develop a personal connection with the person of God and allowing that relationship to grow in its own unique way (through trials, questions, struggles, and personal encounters)? The Christian bureaucracy will lead us to believe that the greatest challenge to the faith is political ideologies, postmodern thought, and moral decline. But I happen to believe nothing outside the church is strong enough to hurt it (after all, Jesus said even the gates of Hell can’t overcome it). Only those within can hinder its progression.
I believe Christianity is credible and strong enough to stand up against questions and encounters with other kind-hearted people of other faiths (or of no faith). Our job as individuals and the church raising up young people in today’s culture is to make sure we are grounded not in an elitist set of beliefs, but rather in love. Love isn’t afraid of other beliefs, nor does it isolate itself from them; it engages every individual, sees the best in others, and endures. God is love and love never fails