A Reflection by Matthew Kemp
The church is out of touch with contemporary culture. We know this from a very recent study released by the Pew Research Center titled, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” It surveyed people across the nation on their religious affiliation, and then compared these numbers with a similar survey taken in 2007.
Most noteworthy of this study’s findings is that it identified the fastest-growing religious expression in America. It is not Christianity or Islam or Hinduism. No, the religious group which gained the most adherents over the past seven years are: the Unaffiliated. Those who claim no religious identity whatsoever now make up 22.8 percent of the American populace, up from 16.1 in 2007, and beating out even the Roman Catholic Church (at 20.8), the nation’s largest single religious organization.
Who are these “Unaffiliated?” A small chunk of them (3.1 percent out of 22.8) are atheists, and a slightly larger chunk (4.0 out of 22.8) self-identify as agnostic. But the majority simply checked the box marked “nothing in particular” (15.8 out of 22.8). For some this means they live a completely secular lifestyle in which religious questions do not even arise. Others might describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” that is, open to the reality of God and eternity and transcendent purpose, but unwilling to commit to any particular set of beliefs, practices, or organized community. Think of it as a sort of cafeteria approach to faith–take a bit of everything you like, leave the rest behind, and don’t let anyone make the decision for you.
At one fifth of the American population, these “Unaffiliated” are all around us: they are our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers. But not only is this group of people growing across the board; most of them come from younger population demographics. For the moment at least they represent the future trajectory of American culture.
The church is out of touch with contemporary culture. For in the face of this national trend, here we are celebrating Trinity Sunday. It’s bad enough that we all came together as a group to worship with a highly ordered liturgy led by people wearing strange clothing that signify their office–the very sort of “organized religion” that is losing ground among our fellow citizens. But on top of that, we have the audacity to assert, and even celebrate, not just belief in God, but a very specific doctrine of who God is. We believe in the Trinity, that there is one God who exists in three equal, eternal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This understanding of God, along with the incarnation of God the Son in the person of Jesus Christ, is what sets Christianity apart from all other faiths.
And while we only mark one Sunday each year as “Trinity Sunday,” the doctrine itself permeates our worship, from “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” at the beginning to “The blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” at the end–not to mention the explication of this doctrine known as the Nicene Creed which we recite weekly. The Trinity is central to Christian belief and practice.
But in light of where American culture is heading–away from defined dogmas and religious labels and toward more individualized expressions of spirituality–isn’t this all a bit much? Wouldn’t the church do better if it let go of its creeds and teachings on who God is? Wouldn’t it appeal to more people in our society if they could just be part of a vaguely defined spiritual community where you believed whatever you wanted to?
As tempting as this line of thinking may be, there is one simple reason that the church has held to the doctrine of the Trinity–a doctrine which, we should note, has always caused scandal to non-Christians and occasionally controversy within the church. But we have held to this belief because this is how God has revealed himself to us: as one God, made known in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. What we call dogmas and creeds are simply shorthand ways of making sense of how Christians have encountered God for 2,000 years.
Yet we might ask, Why does all this matter? Why can’t we just believe whatever we want about God? It matters because God loves us far too much to leave it as a matter of indifference.
You see, God makes himself known to us so that we can be in a relationship with him. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Eternal life means sharing in the life of perfect love that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have enjoyed for all eternity.
Out of this perfect, self-giving love the Father begets the Son; the Son returns this love to the Father, and out of their relationship the Holy Spirit proceeds, binding the 3 in unity. All of this happens eternally: God’s very nature, as Scripture tells us, is love.
And it is out of this love that he created us; it is out of the same love that he sent his Son into the world to redeem us when we refused his love; and out of the same love he offers us the Holy Spirit, by whom we are “born from above” (John 3:7) in baptism, “that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).
This is why we proclaim the doctrine of the Trinity, even in a society that is not interested creeds and defined beliefs. This is why we are committed to the church as God’s own creation where this relationship with him takes place, even when those around us are not interested in organized religious communities. And this is why we seek to bring others to know God as we have come to know him in Christ, even–perhaps especially–those who describe their relationship with him as “nothing in particular.”
The church is out of touch with contemporary culture. But this may not be a bad thing. What is far more important is that we are in touch with the Triune God who has created us, redeemed us, and now sanctifies us. And if this is the case, then we must seek to bring others in touch with him as well, because this is the reason for our existence as the church, to continue to reveal the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to the world around us, regardless of its cultural trends. Because while many Americans may be losing interest in the God whom we know and proclaim, he has not lost interest in them. And neither should we.
Matthew Kemp is the Director of Education and Outreach at Christ Cathedral in Salina, Kansas. He has a M.Div. from Nashotah House Theological Seminary and is a Candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Western Kansas. He and his wife Alethea have two daughters, Theodora and Macrina.