These early years of the 21st century are a wonderful time to follow Jesus. Yes, Christians face hard issues that threaten to divide us further, but that is the case for every generation. Culture pushes us to answer difficult questions -- as it should. After all, we talk about being connected to the Creator; we should relish those difficult questions as a chance to learn, teach or repent.
The most significant change Jesus' followers in the United States face is the death of Christendom over the last 40 years.
"Christendom" refers to how all facets of Western society -- political, economic, social, legal, moral -- were at one time interwoven with Christian belief. In the past, those in power talked about "freedom of religion," but they acted as if that meant freedom to choose from one of many Christian denominations. The question driving that era was "Which Christian church will you attend?" The majority of people now ask, "Why bother going to church? How will worship benefit me?"
Those of us in the Southern U.S. are still in the throes of this cultural change; other parts of the country went through the shift 20 years ago.
One significant change resulting from this religious seismic wave is how faithful Christians view regular church attendance. When I was young, Christians assumed weekly Sunday morning worship was essential. I know some of you will add Sunday and Wednesday night participation to that list, but we were suburban Methodists and happily settled for once a week.
But oh, how times have changed. Most churches now have growing numbers who define regular attendance as twice a month. Other regions of the country have it worse. My wife, Annette, and I have friends to the north who attend once every six or seven weeks, and their friends consider them "religious."
The other obvious cultural shift has to do with how people ask questions about faith and the Bible. In the past, when a question like "Why are there two different versions of the Ten Commandments?" (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) was asked, we may not have known how to answer, but "Don't worry about it, just believe" seemed reasonable. No longer.
Both inside and outside the church, people demand more complete answers from those in leadership. Our answer to "Why should I believe Jesus is God?" must be more than "Because it is in the Bible." Even though I believe the Bible is the word of God for the people of God, that trump card no longer satisfies those who are seeking.
But these challenges are also what makes it a wonderful time to follow Jesus. Christians can no longer take the easy road of relying on cultural pressure to drive people to worship. We must believe, invest ourselves and study our own Scriptures.
We have entered a time when we must explore basic textual criticism. (Believe it or not, there is a good answer as to why there are different versions of the Ten Commandments.) We must be willing to humbly face our flawed past and publicly admit where we were arrogant. We must live out our faith, believing God is at work in and through us.
The world doesn't force us into faith. We worship because we have encountered God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There will always be issues for Jesus' followers. These are simply the challenges that have risen up on our spiritual journeys.
The Rev. Mark Flynn is finishing his ninth year as the senior pastor at Christ United Methodist Church. His wife, Annette, is the pastor at Wildwood United Methodist Church.