Commentary: Witnessing for Christ amid growing diversity

By Stephen Rankin, Special Contributor…

You may have read or heard that the 113th Congress just installed its first Hindu member of the House, its first Buddhist senator (who admits that she doesn’t currently “practice”) and its first “none” (no religious affiliation of any sort), who is also the first openly bisexual member of Congress.

For good reason, a Washington Post article describes this Congress as the most diverse in history. The increasing religious (and sexual) diversity of our country is now showing up in the highest levels of political leadership.

Stephen Rankin

Which category is shrinking? Protestant. Am I alarmed? No. But it does make me think about how a United Methodist Christian like me bears witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Some thoughts in light of the trend:

1. We’ve been here before. I like Rodney Stark’s slightly pugilistic style in his book The Triumph of Christianity. In the chapter entitled “Assessing Christian Growth,” he estimates that the church grew from a best guess of 1,000 adherents circa 40 CE/AD to almost 32 million by the year 350. That 32-million figure constitutes roughly 53 percent of the population of the Roman Empire. He argues, furthermore, that this growth did not happen through a bunch of miraculous events but, rather, through the normal day-to-day witness of Christians willing to love their neighbors. For example, when the plague hit Rome and people with means mostly left the city, the Christians stayed behind and nursed the sick, risking their own health in the process.

This observation reminds me that Christians do not need to maintain social control in order to demonstrate effective witness. In fact, having social control tempts us to think that we need social control in order to be faithful Christians. We do not.

2. The more religiously diverse our country and culture become, the more knowledgeable we Christians need to be about our faith, at least about the basic doctrines and, more specifically, about questions that people have about religious faith that those basic teachings address. We have something good and deeply relevant to share.

As with point #1, we’ve got some work to do. Christians in the United States as a lot are far less theologically/doctrinally knowledgeable than our ancestors, even though we have more easy access to the teachings. There is an irony here, to be sure.

3. The more religiously diverse we become, the less plausible the “religions are all pretty much the same” conceit becomes. It is a common refrain among college students especially. A certain category of religious pluralists help to perpetuate this sentiment, even if they don’t mean to do so (and some of them do mean it).

I hope we United Methodists especially pay attention to this third point. Survey after survey (I’m thinking especially of Christian Smith’s research team’s work in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults and Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood) shows that mainline Protestant emerging adults are the least knowledgeable of and the least likely of any religious groups to remain committed to their religious identity. Why? We United Methodists (as a lot) do such a poor job teaching our young in a way that shows that these doctrinal beliefs really matter. Far too many of us think they don’t.

So, how do we bear effective witness to Christ in 2013?

1. We don’t worry about who controls the levers of pop culture or who controls the media or who has the upper hand politically, socially or morally. (I’m not advocating disengagement, only lack of fretting and frustration.) We simply need to be ready to give an account of the hope that lies within us. Rather than spending so much time worrying about what we cannot control, let’s work on what we can—our own demonstration of the truth, goodness and power of the gospel.

2. We don’t worry about whether we have the right evangelism or witnessing methods. The method is our life, shared transparently.

3. We don’t fudge on the particularities of the gospel. It is about God’s love, to be sure, but God’s love demonstrated supremely and uniquely in Jesus Christ and him crucified (and raised from the dead—truly). Not boundary-blurring pluralism, but a gentle, bold, clear and specific: Jesus of Nazareth who came to seek and to save. . . .

I hope 2013 shows us (especially United Methodists) doing a great job, in view of the trend of religious diversity, sharing our faith winsomely and effectively.

The Rev. Rankin is an ordained UM elder and chaplain of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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