Text: Acts 2: 1-4
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Over the years Heidi and I have lived in a number of different states, and each state has its own unique sayings and jokes and culture. For example, we began in Iowa in the 1970’s and the Iowa slogan at that time was “a place to grow.” One of the favorite jokes was about the definition of a farmer as someone who was out standing in his field. We spent some time in Texas, where there were lots of crazy sayings, one I remember is that you never ask anyone where they are from; because if they are from Texas they will tell you, and if they are not, why embarrass them? I, for one, was glad to leave Texas. We even spent some time in Oklahoma, and I still don’t know what a Boomer Sooner is and of course there is Denver where everything is a mile high. But in all the states there was one consistent saying, like they were somehow unique; everybody thinks their weather is weird. It doesn’t matter where you live, you will always hear something like; “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.” These kinds of sayings seem to be universal; everywhere we have ever lived claimed to have strange weather.
Over the years we have experienced a variety of weird weather, but the strangest day of all came one May afternoon in Denver. It was a Sunday, and it was the day the church had decided to get together for an annual Cinco de Mayo celebration – it was later than the 5th of May, actually I think it was the 20th if I remember correctly. The tradition was for the youth to play the adults in a soccer game and then we got together for an evening meal of enchiladas and other Mexican favorites in the church Fellowship Hall.
That Sunday morning was beautiful; it was just the right temperature, bright blue sky and hardly any breeze. After church, we had a brief lunch at home and then I put on my shorts and T-shirt and athletic shoes to be ready for the soccer match. By early afternoon it was pushing 80 degrees and I was beginning to think it was really too hot to play soccer; it didn’t take long and I began to rethink that position. Shortly after the game began, there came a mighty wind; we could even see it coming. There was an enormous dust cloud and the trees were swaying back and forth, there were leaves in the air and trash swirling around that had been picked up by the wind. We watched this cloud of debris approach the soccer field, and when it arrived it was a mighty wind indeed. Turns out, this mighty wind was signaling a major change in the weather; they were the winds of change, to be sure.
Within not more than 10 minutes the temperature had dropped about 10 or even 15 degrees and the wind stayed strong. Then dark clouds began to roll in and the sun was blocked out and the temperature dropped even lower; by now it was about 3:00 in the afternoon and the temperature was probably in the low 50’s – maybe 30 degrees less than it was a couple of hours ago. Then it started to rain and the temperature dropped even lower, then it began to hail, and the temperature dropped even lower, then it began to snow, and the temperature dropped even lower. We tried to complete the soccer game, but everyone was freezing-we were all in shorts and T-shirts and by now it was 4:30 and there was an inch of snow on the field and the temperature was hovering around 29 degrees – a temperature drop of 50 degrees in about 3 hours.
We called the game early and went to gather at the church for our traditional Mexican meal. When we started home from the church, I was still in my shorts and T-shirt; there was at least 6 inches of snow and it was still falling fast, temperature was maybe about 25 at that point. Through the night we received another 6 or 8 inches of snow-that was May 20 in 2001. The winds of change blew into Denver and boy did it change.
I tell this story because the scripture today and the celebration of Pentecost I believe truly represent the winds of change. There are many who consider Pentecost to be the birthday of the Christian church; but however you choose to mark the beginning of the actual Christian church, one thing is certain and that is that when that mighty wind blew with it came huge changes. The rush of a mighty wind on Pentecost was the wind of change to be sure. Think about all the things that had to change as the Christian church evolved. The language had to change, the races involved had to change, the day of the week changed, the food that was acceptable changed, the rituals changed, the tradition changed, the music changed, it all changed-and the change began with the rush of a mighty wind on Pentecost.
Well, guess what? The winds of change are blowing once again. I believe we are living in a time that will see such significant changes to Christianity that it may be called the second reformation. For the last 500 years, Christianity has been fairly stagnant –but the winds of change are blowing and I can see the dust and debris cloud on the horizon. The question for us on this day of Pentecost is will we prepare for these changes, or will we be caught, as I was in Denver-trudging my way through a snowstorm in shorts, a T-shirt and mesh athletic shoes?
So what is coming? This is a fair question and the warning signs have been in place for a few decades, but the change is accelerating. One of the more dramatic indicators is the result of some new research recently released by the Pew Research Institute. I was familiar with this research of several years ago, but new information based on a survey just completed in 2014 was just released last week. Take a look at some of these numbers.
The Pew Research Institute surveyed a little over 35,000 people, all across the United States. They asked them a number of questions, but one of particular interest is a question about religious affiliation. In just seven years, from 2007 through 2014, the percentage of the population of the United States that would identify themselves as Christian in a mainline denomination, has fallen rather dramatically in the last seven years. Evangelicals have also suffered a decline, as have the Catholics, but the one group that is growing are the unaffiliated. As a matter of fact, the unaffiliated group is the fastest growing demographic in the United States at this time. And it is not all young people, either – it represents people from all ages and all income and educational levels.
This research is significant on several levels. At first glance, it tells us that the Christian church, as we know it, is dying. At this rate of change, we only have a few decades left. For many, this research represents bad news and everyone is predicting doomsday futures.
I take a very different attitude. I look at the growing group of those that self-identify as unaffiliated, and think to myself what a huge and expanding market! I follow up that thought with the thought that there is not a church in the Valley that speaks their language or ministers to their needs. They are alone, and alone can be a very lonely place to be.
Think about this; of the top ten largest churches in the Valley, not counting the Catholics, I would have to say that all ten fall into the Evangelical Christian paradigm. From the Pew research we can see that about 21% of the population of the state of Idaho identifies themselves as Evangelical Christian. This means that all ten evangelical churches are filling their auditoriums every Sunday with 21% of the population.
Now look at the percentage of the population that self-identify as unaffiliated-in Idaho that percentage is 27% – in the state of Washington, it is even higher, at 32%. So the bottom line is this, we have a larger percentage and we only have to fill one church-and not ten. But before we can fill our church, we need to understand a few things. We need to understand why someone would choose to be unaffiliated rather than self-identify as Christian, of any kind.
I think the message is clear. The choices are clear. Those in the survey could choose atheist or agnostic if they had no interest in God at all. If they had zero spirituality, atheist or agnostic might be a good choice, but that is not what they chose. If they had a true interest in another religion, many of those were given as options as well, Buddhism, Islam, Hindu, Jewish or other were all options which this segment of the population did not identify with either. Instead, they chose unaffiliated.
It is my belief that because the majority of this demographic would have been raised in the basic context of Christianity, that is what they are now rejecting ; Christianity has become so rabid, so distasteful, so toxic that a huge percentage of the population now no longer wants to affiliate with Christianity. We need to find out why and find out quickly.
I have a few ideas-we will hear about some of that next week. My sister Sharon will be in town and she has recently retired from the ministry within the United Methodist Church, and we are going to have a dialogue about what we both have seen, what we think we are doing right, and what we need to do better. I will be sharing some of my hopes and dreams to reach out to those unaffiliated and Sharon will offer her perspective as well. So stay tuned for part two! Amen.