Tens of thousands of years before the Spanish Catholics formed a colony in St. Augustine, Florida (1565) and Protestant Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock (1620), Native people had faith in this land. Long before pharaohs sat on ancient Egyptian thrones, long before Homer wrote The Iliad or Rome rose to power, long before Jesus was raised from the dead, inhabitants of the Americas had hunted, fished, planted and reaped, loved and given birth, danced and mourned their dead. These Native Americans had ordered their lives in accordance with socially prescribed patterns of behavior and explained their existence in this universe in accordance with cosmological principles of understanding. In other words, they had developed systems of religious ritual and beliefs long before foreigners arrived from Europe to tell them how to do this - in the name of Jesus. (Drawn from The Religious History of America, Edwin Gaustad and Leigh Schmidt, Harper, San Francisco, 2002, p. 5).
The religions of these indigenous people were as diverse as the places of their settlements and as varied as the tribal groups themselves. The Native people were pluralistic long before anyone used the word. There was no single religious institution, no single sacred book, no unified priesthood or common creed, no core group of rituals that have been found to tie these diverse people and their complex religious systems together. In fact, it was not until well into the colonization of the Americas that any intertribal religious movements evolved. Today, we have books written on Native American Spirituality. But, such an understanding comes out of European needs to construct faith, not indigenous people's needs to do so.
Expressions for the God who creates, sustains, and nurtures life are bound by stories. Each tribe had its own language for God. For example, the Pimas in the Southwest called God "The Earth Magician." The Tsimshians in the Northwest explained God as the Light of the Sun in a story called, "The One Who Walks All Over the Sky." The Apache simply spoke of God in the Land. One Apache wrote: "The land looks after us. The land keeps badness away" (Ibid, pp. 5-6).
Into this pluralistic mix of native religions entered Christianity more than 440 years ago. Sometimes moderating and sometimes intensifying severity and hostility toward the Indians, Christianity became the new religion of this new world. Christianity grew as immigrants flooded to the new world. While this was happening, native tribes and religions diminished more and more.
By 1900, 96.4% of all Americans were Christian. By the dawn of the 21st Century, the changing face of Christianity has brought a different face to faith in the United States of America. Now, less than 85% of Americans are Christians. Nevertheless, this 85% makes up 235,741,652 people in the 2000 Census. The pluralism we see in America today is one in which Islam has passed Judaism with almost five million people as the second largest religion in America and Buddhists now comprise 2.5 million people, or 1% of the faithful in America.
Not only have world religions found their way to our shores in increasing numbers, but, Christianity itself has changed dramatically in the last 100 years. The greatest change has come with Pentecostal Christians. Numbering 46,000 in 1900, today, Pentecostal Christians number of 75 million and make up 27% of all Christians in America. Independent churches have risen from 7.7% or 5.8 million in 1900 to 28.2% or 78.6 million today. The Roman Catholic Church has grown as well - from 14.2% in 1900 to 20.8% in 2000 with more than 58 million strong.
Meanwhile, Evangelicals and Protestants have shrunk in numbers. At the turn of the century, 42.2% of Christians were Evangelicals, today only 14.6%. Protestants numbered 35 million or 46.1% in 1900 and today, we number 62.5 million or 23.4%. Those describing themselves as Marginal Christians make up almost 4% of the American Christian landscape - more than 10 million people.
The key shift has occurred with the growth of Pentecostals and Independent churches and the severe decline in Evangelical and Mainline Protestant Churches. I must admit, I have read more books than I care to tell you about analyzing why mainline churches have become the sideline or "back-of-the-line" churches. I have also read a number of books about the rise of Mega-churches and Holiness churches. I have my own opinions. Mostly, I believe people are hungering for meaning in their lives, just as you and I are hungering for meaning. In following the theologically and socially conservative movements which are growing so rapidly, I believe people have found great meaning in the healing, the love, the joy, the prophecy, the answers to prayers, and the simplicity of worship and music they find in these traditions. Theirs are closed systems of theology. Simple answers are given to difficult questions.
But what about us? I believe we are growing because we offer joy, and love, prayer, worship and music in deep and rich traditional ways which touch at core values we hold in the faith. I also believe we are growing because we offer theological openness. By encouraging you to develop your own beliefs and honoring your freedom in so doing, this congregation and the United Church of Christ are unique as a great blessing on today's landscape of faith in America. We need to allow the Holy Spirit to flow freely in our midst! We need to God to touch us in ways that deepen our prayer life and our life together. I pray that God will continually touch us to be the uniting and the healing force of faith in our times. There are too many divisions and too many churches which demonize people and paths of faith, often blanketing these divisions with words of love. It is our calling to be both positive instruments of change and God's reconciling agents of justice and peace in our times.
It is true. The changing face of Christianity in America is not the faith of our fathers and mothers anymore. People's first access to our church comes through the door of our website. Today, Jesus would say: "Seek and you will discover a million hits under `open and affirming.' Google it, and Windows will be opened unto you." Knowing that the landscape is changing, you and I need to be more vigilant in telling others that we are here, that we are here to stay, and that we are here to pray - that Jesus would guide us forward in bold new ways. We need to spread the word that this House of Tolerance, this House of Justice, this Cathedral of Grace is the House of God!
In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, he tells the Christians there that our faith is foolishness to those who seek to destroy us. Eugene Peterson puts it this way in his interpretation of I Corinthians 1:18-21 found in The Message:
The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way to salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It's written: I'll turn conventional wisdom on its head, I'll expose the so-called experts as crackpots. So, where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn't God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God. God is his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb- preaching, of all things! - to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.
This past week, I was asked by a reporter what made me believe that this movement called We Believe! - Which launched on Tuesday with more than 110 clergy representing 100 local churches and synagogues and over 300 lay people present - would take off in the current conditions in which we find ourselves. I thought for a moment. In my mind's eye, I saw the face of the Apostle Paul smiling as he penned these words to the church at Corinth.
I answered something like this:
"In your eyes this all may seem foolish. But, we see with the eyes of faith. We believe that God has placed us here to change the world. We believe that poverty is a moral issue and we will not be silent until things change for those who are left out of the American dream. We believe the American Way is one in which tolerance, love, and justice will prevail and intolerance, hatred, and a "Just Us" mentality will fail. We believe God has placed us here to preach and proclaim good news to the poor and we will not stop preaching until we die . And when we die others will come and pick up this book which seems foolish in the world's eyes and they continue spreading God's word until justice reigns and God's salvation has come!" There was no follow-up question.
God's temple of which Jesus speaks in John 2 is the temple which God has created in each one of us. God has created us to be holy for Him. God has created us to be shining lights on a hill - through the hope and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even in your darkest days, your hardest moments, the bleakness of the blight you feel in your soul at times, do not despair. God, who has created you in his divine image, is bringing hope and peace to others through you.
The face of Christianity and religion in America is changing. In 1853, at the point of another spiritual turning point, Chief Seattle of the Suquamish people of the Pacific Northwest stood at Puget Sound and delivered a famous speech about the future of the White Man and the Red Man in America. He closed his speech with these words:
...When the last red man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among white men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe. And when your children's children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night, when the streets of your cities and villages are silent, and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people. For the dead are not powerless. Dead, did I say? There is no death. Only a change of the worlds (The Wisdom of the Native Americans, ed. by Kent Nerburn, New World Library, Novato, CA. 1999, pp. 198-199).
May we be open to the "change of the worlds," which our God in Christ is bringing to us in these times. For we are not alone. We have the Holy Spirit and, in the words of Native brothers and sisters, we have our "Ancestors" to call us forward in faith. Amen.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church