Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Athiests, Buses, and the Lack of British Concern
If you hadn't heard, the same group that ran ads on buses in Washington D.C. that asked the question "Is There A God?" has now put a much more straight-forward message on 800 London buses. The Atheists Bus Campaign is the brain child of British comic who was offended by a Christian web site advertised on a London bus and decided to offer a different message. She started hoping to receive $8k to advertise on a few buses in London, but was surprised to receive over $200k in support once the British Humanist Association took up her cause. As the campaign spreads and future ad buys are pondered, however, what is creating a bit of concern for Christian folks isn't the message itself or those who paid for it, but rather the amount of indifference the campaign is generating among Londoners.... which is considerable.
The reason given for this indifference by Christian leaders overseas is the degree to which how secular London (and for that matter all of Europe) has become. As church attendance among the masses has dwindled to the point that its estimated that only about 7% of Europeans actually attend a church, to be told that there is no God is not necessarily all that culturally offensive. Without a huge following, the church's impact in Europe has become so marginalized that now politicians downplay their religious heritage and beliefs.
We as Americans have a hard time digesting this (not so) new reality across the pond. If you ran these ads on city buses in, say, Atlanta or Houston or Salt Lake City, people would boycott the bus, there'd be hearings on how the ads got printed in the first place, law suits, millions raised for new bus ads for Jesus.... you name it. It would be a total circus.
And yet, what is really interesting to me about all of this is that in Great Britain, and in every other country in Western Europe, there is NO separation between church and state.
None. Zero. Nada.
While I was at Asbury taking some classes toward me currently-stalled doctorate, we spent a week with Steve Chalke, one of the most well-known pastors on the other side of the Atlantic. Over the course of the past decade, the British government has actually pumped tens of millions of dollars into Chalke's ministry, Oasis International, which then uses the money to build schools, medical clinics, and job training centers all over the country. Because the Queen is not only the head of the British state, but also the Church of England, allocating money to religious enterprises creates not a stir in Parliament. Because Chalke's organization is able to provide these services much more efficiently than the British welfare system - which Chalke told us is overwhelmed and failing - Chalke actually receives phone calls from politicians wondering if he take on projects the government can't get to themselves.
(And everyone thought Bush's faith-based initiative funding was so radical)
But here's my point. The naysayers here in the States who claim that by taking religion - and specifically Christianity - out of forums like courtrooms, schools, and places where politicians do their business - we are driving our country in the ground are missing the example of state institutionalized Christianity only one transatlantic flight from Washington DC. Government in Europe embraces Christianity, and has even set it up on a pedestal above all other faith-movements and still, the Christian movement there is slowly dying. Atheists can put whatever they want on buses and nobody cares. Nobody, except the British Methodist Church which is thanking those who started the campaign because it's created discourse over spiritual matters in the public forum. In other words, the Methodists in London are thankful for the buses because otherwise people are thinking or talking about God or religion.
Wrap your brain around that one.
My fear is that American Christians, particularly of the evangelical persuasion, are missing the point when they demonize what they believe to be the secularization of all things government and media. The deeper problem is that Christianity, as it is presented and in terms of how it resonates with people, is losing its impact in western culture. And even if you legislated our faith as being the "Official Faith of the United States of America", according it special protection and even financing, if the transmission of the message of the Gospel and how it's practiced by its followers isn't relevant to people of this time and place, it will continue to fade.
I mean, theoretically, given the protection of our right to speak freely, an atheist should be able to put ads like the one in London on any bus or billboard that they like anywhere in the United States. Only, unlike in London, instead of saying that there is "probably" no God, they could just say here that there is no God. If you read the NY Times article you'll realize that wasn't possible in London because the state's embrace of the Christian religion gave cause to the London metro commission to order the ABC to add the "probably". They couldn't say there was no God because the state recognizes that there is. So you can say there is no God in America, and you can't in Britain.
And so I'll ask again, what does it matter if your faith is protected when nobody practices it?
While the US is a long way away (a lot longer, I think, than the postmodernists like Eddy Gibbs, Brian McLaren, and Leonard Sweet, and post-institutional churchists like George Barna would have us believe) from the kind of secular world that is Western Europe, we must not get wrapped up in the rabbit trail that is worrying about federal, state, or local government infringement on the privileged position we as Christians have enjoyed in this nation since its founding. Considering the American Christian church at best has been slowly declining in attendance, involvement, and influence over the last fifty years, the more important endeavor is to ask how we can help once again breathe life into Christ's message of redemption and reconciliation in the hearts of minds of people in our community so they care about the local church, and the Christian faith, at large.
As I look to preach on this issue specifically, as it relates to the church I serve, my sense is that our emphasis on ritual and gathering must be modified to include individual engagement, and ministry that restores souls, lives, families, neighborhoods, and communities. Ministry that will take effort, creativity, and energy from each one of us on an ongoing, sustained basis. Ministry that will force us to take a long, hard look at the nature of what we have called "evangelism". For years evangelism has been centered on public gatherings where people are told that if they don't choose Jesus they'll go to Hell. Chances are it doesn't matter to somebody that they'll go to Hell if they don't believe it exists.
But is that all we've got? The threat of Hell?
Strangely enough, Chalke's ministry is one of the few that are growing on European soil. People are joining new Oasis communities at rates unheard of for quite some time. Of course, the ministry is feeding the hungry, educating children, and treating the sick. It is now waging a huge campaign to end human trafficking and is training teens to help deal with and confront gang activity in their own communities. That's a far cry from arguing whether or not we should be using hymns or praise choruses, or fighting to put up a nativity scene in a local park. It sidesteps the issue of whether or not mainstream media is biased, and instead engages people at their level of need. Whether they are curious about God, angry at injustice, scared of violence in their neighborhood, or just want to make the world a better place, Oasis is equipped to engage wherever people are at.
And Oasis, I might add, is a movement of people.
Just a little something to think about as you go about your busy day.