Only instead of being snatched up into the clouds of glory, American Christians have disappeared into secluded church subcultures and comfortable bubbles. Scared ya for minute, didn't I? :)
According to a number of surveys conducted by the Barna Group, a christian research institute, there has been a 92 percent increase in the number of unchurched Americans in the last thirteen years. In 1991 there were 39 million unchurched Americans compared with the 75 million currently. The age group between 21-35 are disappearing from American churches at an alarming rate and they are the least likely age group to be personally acquainted with a christian. Although every survey concludes that the most effective method of evangelism is to build LONG TERM personal relationships with people, it is the least used method employed by evangelicals. Street preaching, tract distributing, media evangelism, and other "one-hit" type methods are the most common evangelistic tools.
So, the emerging American "unchurched" culture has no "inside" experience with everyday Christians and large numbers of everyday American Christians are spending the majority of their time with other Christians in mostly christian settings.
What are the unintended consequences of such a reality? Well, for one, our culture's impression of the church is largely dependent on evangelicals in the media (most of whom, I wish would get raptured already) or the horror stories from people who have been burned by the church and left. Now, most christian people and leaders are wonderful people, trying to live their lives in accordance to the teachings of Jesus and to love God and each other the best way they know how. But it is SO easy and SO common for believers to get sucked into the christian subculture, that most of the world does not get to encounter these people on a regular basis. We church folks have created such an extensive, safe, and comfortable bubble that it becomes completely possible to enter through the church's door and never come back out again. Somehow, I don't think that is what Jesus had in mind...
We have our own everything: churches, schools from pre-k to college, book clubs, music, stores, christianese jargon, odd bumper stickers, businesses, movies, retreats, concerts, conventions, coffee houses, theaters, magazines, news outlets, youth groups, youth centers, and even alternatives to myspace and youtube (hi, Godtube!). None of these things are sinful or harmful in and of themselves, but add them all together and we've created a comfy, isolated empire that too many Christians retreat to LONG TERM. And MANY get sucked so far in, that they make little contact with the culture at large, if ever. We might as well be raptured.
People outside the church get a distorted view of Christianity because they form their perception of Christianity based on the few glimpses we allow, and it ain't pretty. There's the TV evangelists that prey on the the poorest and most vulnerable members of society to swindle their money in exchange for false hope. The world watches as these charlatans reduce the name of Jesus to a magic trick or a lottery ticket, taking money FROM the poor to build crystal cathedrals and fund their decadent lifestyles of BMWs and mansions on hills. Or people hear mega-preachers like Pat Robertson, who blames every natural disaster on gays and liberals, calls for the assassination of leaders who he disagrees with, who famously said, "gays want to come into our churches, throw blood on us and give us all AIDS," and then later said gay people's presence at Disney World would cause a meteor to hit earth. Oh, how about when Jerry Falwell claimed the purple teletubby was gay and blamed 9/11 on liberals, gays, and the ACLU? Or what about Gary Demar, who wants to establish the Old Testament law as American Law, so gays can be executed. Or the Westboro Baptists that go around the country protesting military funerals with signs that say "God Hates Your Tears," "God Hates Fags," and "God Killed Your Sons." Or savvy politicians, who may or may not be Christians, but do not hesitate to use Jesus to "sanctify" the republican party and all that comes along with it. Or when Bob Jones University, a christian college that attracted such notorious speakers as G.W. Bush and John McCain, just lifted their longstanding official ban on inter-racial dating in 2000! Or people like Ann Coulter, who talk about Jesus constantly and then advocate the use of nuclear weapons, just to send a warning to the rest of the world. Or how about the long string of scandals involving high profile Christians, going all the way back to Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker up to Benny Hinn and Ted Haggard? Or sometimes people's only experience with church people are when they watch Christians organize over shallow issues, such as boycotting stores that say "happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Or if people are really lucky, they might just be told they're on their way to hell through a comic strip track left on the windshield of their car. These are just a handful of examples...
Do you see where I am going with this? Do you see why people scratch their heads and think there is a disconnect between Jesus and The church? And in some cases, they are right, there is a disconnect between the example Jesus set and how the church behaves. Christians know that there is so much diversity within the church, so many denominations and viewpoints, and one sector does not speak for the whole. But to an outsider, it could easily seem like "the church" is full of money-hungry, power-hungry, war-mongering, male-dominated, pro-rich, judgmental, calloused, legalistic, politically partisan (bordering on theocrats), hypocritical Pharisees, who want to force their religion on others, reject and condemn those with whom they disagree, and eagerly await heathens' future smiting...
People who have never known down-to-earth, loving Christians to off-set these wacky portrayals (perhaps "betrayals" is a more apt description), will inevitably form this type of caricature of the church. It's human nature. We Christians are guilty of the same. How many Christians who never take the time to know gay people personally paint them as promiscuous, leather-wearing, rainbow-clad, cross-dressing, parade-marching transvestites that are after our children? (I heard this description verbatim...)
All the incidents I pointed out do not represent Christianity as a whole, but the world will never know that if we Christians continue to barricade ourselves within our safe subcultures, listening to CCM (barf) while reading the Left Behind Series. If we do not make the vulnerable move to go out AMONG the people--not just inviting people to church--and build real, trustworthy relationships, where we listen just as much as talk, where we become transparent, humble, and sacrificing--Christians and nonchristians alike will suffer. Nonchristians might never get past their horrible impression of the church to even consider or fully understand the gospel. Our PLACE is to be in the world--smack dab in the middle of the muck and mire of human dysfunction (John 17:5). Christians will never experience essential growth without heeding to this call, to be IN the world. We can attend church services every Sunday, mid-week prayer groups and bible studies, attend our christian colleges, wear our scripture-clad t-shirts and WWJD bracelets, and do the "hit and run" evangelizing from time to time, but unless we get out and live among the people as Jesus did, reach out to the outcasts and marginalized, start publicly defending the cause of the poor and needy, and use what influence we have to demonstrate service-based christianity, we will become stagnant, disconnected Christians, twiddling our thumbs until Jesus comes back....and I wonder what He'd say?
I've been reading this book, "They Like Jesus, But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations" by Dan Kimball, about how the present "secular" culture views Jesus and the Church, and the vast difference of opinion between the two. It's a book that provides great hope for the church to break out of its bubble and reach out to a generation hungering for Jesus (more to come on this book).
I don't know about you, but I haven't been raptured. I am here on earth, called to pray for and bring about God' will ON EARTH as it is in heaven. I am flawed and inadequate for such a task. I struggle with selfishness, fear, doubt, and a million other areas on a daily basis. Nevertheless, I am not ready to disappear from the world. I want to be here to sow peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I want to extend a hand of friendship to the other--the Muslim, the Jew, the Hindu, the atheist, or a gay person. I want to encounter Jesus in the least, the lost, and the last of this world. After all, that is where He said we would truly find him.
"Christians are now the foreigners in a post-christian culture, and we have got to wake up to this reality."