In fact, the Christian percentage of the population is falling, and it’s not inconceivable that we Christians will constitute a minority of Americans by the end of this century.
So should we worry about these numbers? Yes and no.
Yes, as Christians we are mandated to share the gospel with others in the hope that they, too, can find the joy that we ourselves find in Jesus Christ. But, no, we must not live in fear that a growing percentage of American non-Christians (including atheists) will somehow threaten our faith or radically alter the character of our nation. That road leads to prejudice and hostility.
Rather, we must find ways to live in harmony with our non-Christian neighbors. Unless they adopt some violent extremist form of religion, we must respect their freedom to make different choices from ours and must insist that they, in turn, respect our choices. Beyond that, we must be in conversation with others so we can know about their choices and give them a chance to know and understand who we are as people of faith.
Jon Willis, a member of my congregation, has caught this vision and begun to act on it so that young people won’t grow up in religious fear and ignorance.
Not long ago Jon asked me to attend a gathering he put together of Christians, Jews, Muslims and others to talk about the organization created by activist Eboo Patel, the Interfaith Youth Core, with headquarters in Chicago (see www.ifyc.org). So we sat in a circle of folding chairs in our church’s fellowship hall and kicked around possibilities. Later Jon helped to organize a service project for youth from various religious traditions.
He’s planted an important seed, and some of the young people he’s gathered in are beginning to see the importance of living in harmony with people of other traditions because they find such people in their lives every day.
But perhaps more important, they are beginning to perceive the need to know more about their own religious tradition so they can explain it to these friends. As a Presbyterian high school girl told that initial meeting, she wants to know more about what her church teaches and why so that if she’s challenged — or even just asked — about those teachings by non-Presbyterians she’ll be able to respond intelligently.
Interfaith dialogue is not about giving up our faith or about moving to find some syncretistic common ground that pretends there are no differences between or among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and others. That would demean faith.
Rather, conversations among people of various religions should lead participants to a deeper understanding of — and firmer commitment to — their own tradition. Oh, sometimes it happens that participants in such dialogue will be so attracted to the faith of another that they will head down the road to conversion. But conversion is not the first purpose of interfaith discussions. If it becomes that, almost all participants will feel manipulated and will be so on guard as to prevent any useful sharing.
The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (http://religions.pewforum.org) by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the American Religious Identification Survey (www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org) have given us pretty clear, up-to-date pictures of what religious life in America looks like now, including the news that more and more Americans say they have no religious affiliation at all.
Our churches can shudder in fear at what this information conveys or they can use it to motivate them to give young and old the tools they need to renew their own commitment to faith and to explore the faith of others. In many cases those “others” are not strangers. Rather, they are our neighbors, fellow students, and coworkers.
Bill Tammeus is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at http:// billtammeus.typepad.com. E-mail him at [email protected].