We’ve Come a Long Way
In his day, Jesus was mocked, beaten, and publicly executed for his ministry. He was called a blaspheming treasonous criminal. Today, an empire similar to Rome might call him a terrorist.
This was a tenuous and painful beginning for a movement that has since grown to become the largest religion the world has ever seen. Today, nearly one third of the human population identifies itself as Christian (2.18 billion in 2011, as estimated by the Pew Research Center).
It was a humble beginning as well. What started as a loosely organized band of poor laborers and societal outcasts has since grown into a worldwide body made up of every class of people imaginable. For a long time now, this has included the very powerful.
For example, according to that same 2011 Pew study, the United States (arguably the most powerful empire ever to exist) also has more Christians than any other nation on the planet, with 79.5% of our population claiming to be Christian.
So, in the last two thousand years, the followers of Jesus have miraculously expanded to become the most popular and powerful group of people in the history of our world. At least, that’s what the labels say.
More People Claim the Label “Christian” than Any Other American Demographic. No ethnic group can boast to hold such a large portion of the population. Even if you lump all the pale-skinned people of European ancestry together and call them white—the largest ethnic group reported in the U.S. Census—they number fewer than the Christians.
There are more Christians than there are Republicans or Democrats (or even the two parties combined). Perhaps this is why candidates from both parties consistently campaign to Christian audiences and try to characterize themselves as faithful.
Of Course, Not Every Christian is Serious About Faith
In the U.S., less than 20% of the population regularly attends church. Using 2010 Census figures like the above-mentioned Pew study did, that leaves us with about 49 million church-going American Christians, many fewer than the 79% figure of 196 million.
Still, 49 million is no small number. That figure surpasses the AARP, which, at 37 million members, is the largest advocacy organization in the United States. And remember, we’re talking about people who show up every Sunday. Those 37 million AARP members are not attending weekly meetings.
But let’s say we get really conservative and estimate that even among the people who attend church, only ten percent of them are actually quite serious about their faith: meaning they study their Bibles and ascribe to the teachings of Jesus which they hear about week in and week out. That means we have 4.9 million active, dedicated Christians in the United States. These highly committed disciples of Jesus still outnumber some of the most powerful membership-based advocacy groups in the U.S.
For example, the NRA claims to have 4.5 million members (a figure that is probably inflated). The National Education Association has 3 million, and the Service Employees International Union, often credited for helping to get Obama’s Affordable Care Act passed, has 2 million (across the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico).
In other words, these committed followers of Jesus, who each week devote their time, energy, and money to their churches, should be a force to be reckoned with. They should be able to transform society and influence American policy better than any other group out there.
So My Question is, Why Don’t They Get Things Done?
It’s not like the church is a party without a platform! Jesus made his instructions pretty clear, and we’ve all been reading basically the same book for the last 17-1800 years. I mean, let’s just pick the relatively simple issue of gun control. How can a religion with 196 million, 49 million, or even 4.9 million American members, all devoted to a savior who commands his followers to “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek”—how can that church consistently get beaten by a piddly little organization like the NRA? How have we allowed this nation of so-called Christians to become first in the world for gun ownership and gun deaths? More than 30,000 Americans die each year from gun deaths. The most Christian nation is also the most violent nation.
Of course, it’s not just violence. If you look at Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says the test every person must pass before getting into heaven is whether we do things like feed the hungry, tend to the sick, welcome the stranger, and visit the prisoner. Yet our wealthy nation has 45 million people living in poverty, the most expensive health care system in the world which 40 million people can’t afford to access, and incarcerates more of its population than any other nation.
We Don’t Need More Christians, We Need Better Ones
I’m a United Methodist, and my denomination’s mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” I think that’s a great mission, but it often gets interpreted simply as winning more people over for Jesus. You know, saving souls.
Honestly, I think we’ve won over more than we can handle. Instead, what we ought to be doing is making the Christian label actually mean something. The way I see it, a real disciple of Jesus in this nation would stand out like a sore thumb. He would be pushing for a more peaceful, just, and compassionate America. She would give up the common American pursuit of happiness (usually translated into money and power) and instead pursue holiness. And no Christian’s notion of holiness would be limited to simple personal piety or judgmental statements about sexual morality. Instead, it would be so bold as to include economics and political policy, just as Jesus’s ministry did.
Otherwise, What’s the Point?
That second part of the United Methodist mission—the part about transforming the world—that’s why I chose to follow Jesus. If he takes me to heaven, hey, that would be great! But that’s not why I joined up. I want to be a part of creating that new reality called the Kingdom of God. Here and now, in this world, in this very nation. What about you?