This week I am in Nashville attending the National Collegiate Summit for college ministers, and I just got word that Nashville has seen its first school closing due to the swine flu.
Upon hearing this news, I went back to my hotel room to investigate the reason for the school closing, and apparently there are two suspected cases of swine flu in the state.
What’s interesting is that the school here in Nashville has not closed its doors for just one day, or even two. It’s going to be closed for 7 whole days! I’m assuming that there is a scientific reason behind this specific amount of time, but 7 days seems a bit on the cautious side.
In light of stories like this, I’m starting to wonder if this whole swine flu thing is getting overblown. Just consider these statistics:
– The World Health Organization says there are 109 confirmed cases with 1 death in the U.S., out of a population of more than 300 million people
– Contrast that percentage with the more than 13,000 people in the U.S. who have died of complications from seasonal flu since January. Seasonal flu is expected to continue killing hundreds of people a week. In total, about 36,000 people a year die from the flu in the United States and worldwide. The annual death toll is somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 (Statistics taken from cnn.com)
If anything, the pandemic we should be fearing is the old school flu that we grew up getting shots for. If the regular flu kills so many people, why don’t we see more Americans wearing masks each year during flu season?
While I don’t want to be foolish and underestimate the potential devastation of this virus, it seems plausible that the swine flu is being a little over-sensationalized.
What is ironic about the timing of this “pandemic” is that it coincided with a seminar I attended earlier today on a similar topic. Only, this seminar addressed the escalating panic surrounding church decline. In the same way that news outlets are inundating their listeners with hourly updates of the spread of swine flu, pastors across the nation are frightening their congregations with statistics about Christianity’s decline.
And just like the swine flu, it’s not altogether clear whether the statistics match the rhetoric. While I do not know the plans that God has for this country, current studies do not indicate the need for such a frenzy.
The seminar I attended was led by Ed Stetzer, the President of Lifeway Research, and his organization has conducted numerous studies on the un-churched demographic of America. His findings are quite remarkable. (You can check them out at his blog, edstetzer.com)
What Lifeway has found is that the younger un-churched generation, aged 20-29, tends to be more spiritual and more open to conversations about Christianity than the un-churched generations that are 30 years and older. Here is just a sampling of what Lifeway found:
– Does God or a supreme being exist? 81% of 20-29 year-olds said yes, while only 79% of 30+ year-olds answered yes
– Do you believe Jesus died and came back to life? 66% of 20-29 year-olds said yes, and only 54% of 30+ year-olds said yes
– “I would study the Bible with a friend if they asked”: 61% of 20-29 year-olds said yes, and 42% of 30+ years-olds said yes
In addition to these numbers, Lifeways studies indicate that there has been very little decline in church attendance over the last decade. Though there has been some decline, the numbers are not extreme.
What’s more, there has not been a significant rise in the percentage of American atheists. Currently it is at 4%, which is not much different from past trends.
All of that to say, if you ever hear a statistic that 88% of evangelical children leave the faith when they graduate from high school, that simply isn’t true. Many do leave the faith, but not nearly to such an extent.
With that in mind, why are Christians so quick to quote exaggerated statistics about the decline in American Christianity? Because fear works. Scaring people results in action, as evidenced by the number of school closings and face masks that you see around the country right now. If anything, we should have been protecting ourselves more effectively from the seasonal flu, but the media didn’t hype it up so we didn’t get scared, and we subsequently failed to act with the same measure of caution.
Now to offer a slightly less cynical perspective, pastors also use this strategy because Christians need to care about the lost more than they do. Many Christians are certainly apathetic, and if we continue in this complacency the Church will decline.
What is problematic about the scare tactic is that we shouldn’t need to sensationalize the Gospel. While we should care about the health of the Church in America and we should feel a burden to reach the lost, it shouldn’t take dramatic statistics to motivate us. We shouldn’t be waiting for the situation to reach its worst before we finally get off our butts and do something.
Regardless of the statistics, regardless of whether Americans churches are growing or dying, we should be preaching the Gospel. After all, the word “gospel” literally means “good news,” and if you have good news, TRULY good news, you spread it! You tell the world, every person around you that you can possibly get to listen, about the good news that has changed your life and can change theirs. That is the call of every Christian regardless of context or circumstances, so we shouldn’t sit back and relax simply because the numbers aren’t dire yet.
We might also consider viewing these statistics as a kind of encouragement. For those of us who labor, we have not labored in vain! God IS faithful and He IS using our hard work, so we must press on. God does not need scare tactics to compel people to care about the Gospel–the news is good enough on its own.
And as the statistics seem to indicate, the un-churched are ready to hear it.