Many Pew Research Center polls state that the majority of Americans say that they are somewhat spiritual, believing in some kind of a higher being, but have no particular religious affiliation. Sadly, this number is getting significantly bigger every day. Even for people who say that they are believers, their concept or understanding of God varies because they are not formed and catechized. For many, this formation and life of discipleship have been lost some time along the way. What we have nowadays are just cultural Christians who labeled themselves as believers but really do not understand the real reason and personal sacrifices needed to truly believe. We have many self-labeled people but we lack disciples who are formed and willing to make personal efforts to live their faith with a life of prayer and worship that is beyond themselves and their likings. Without a doubt, this is the challenge for the Church today, and it is important that we do not simply lose heart but heed to the loving mission of letting Christ be preached in and through our very own lives — only using words when necessary.
Even though it has been common talk that Mass attendance and participation in parish life have decreased tremendously, this is not a Catholic-only problem. Many mainstream Protestant denominations are facing similar problems with what they call “membership retention” challenges as well. Overall, people just are not that interested in religion anymore, they just want to be “spiritual” with pseudo-religious things sprinkled in here and there on their own terms. Even though there is growth in the nondenominational sector with more general and generic self-identified “churches” opening up, they also face long-term membership problems! People come whenever it is inspirational and convenient, and when they do not agree or get what they want, they stop going or jump to another “church” that caters to their needs.
When I go to a local Ministerial Alliance meeting, our talks between Christian ministers have often been about small, denomination-based churches losing membership to bigger, more entertaining, and appealing churches with better music, technology, and incentives. Those places have no problem getting the money and membership when it is convenient for them; however, whenever tragedies or tough times come, they cannot and are not able (at times, not willing, too) to help members to cope or go through the trials and problems of life. People who chase after these “churches” often end up having to seek help from smaller, denomination-based churches in times of need… but then go back to their usual convenient, consumer-based mentality when things go back to normal. This reality boggles my mind but this is the sober truth in our consumeristic society because not many people are willing to change their ways to become real disciples. Instead, here in America, Christianity is being capitalized from within by people who are trying to make money off the Gospel message, hence becoming more of a comforting and appealing way of life with different flavors for different lifestyles instead of following Christ Jesus who is the Way, the Life, and the Truth at all costs.
It seems like we are losing the battle because more “ministers” and “churches” have changed their strategies to bank and profit from “trends” since they know that many believers only want inspirational, captivating, feel-good, and no-challenge way of life and worship style. Without a doubt, this has made Christianity into different sectors and flavors of a product to be consumed by the consumeristic lifestyle. What we end up with now is no longer a true genuine understanding of discipleship, following the Lord by dying to ourselves and living totally to Him. We are simply living a consumeristic society and faith lifestyle where the teachings of the Gospel and the Lord become a product, having to answer, appeal, and fit our needs, else we will find something better or just go our own way. We no longer want to let our faith changes us, to become more like Christ, we just want to change our faith to fits our needs! We are stuck with the “good enough” mentality. Perhaps without knowing, we have sadly made our faith only a matter of the things of this world and have lost the scope of eternal life.
The irony is that we, ourselves, have become our own products as we objectify God and one another. We have become products to be used and consumed, driven by our own consumeristic needs and desires. We have become people who are so preoccupied with the things of this world that we can no longer feel the joy of the Gospel, lift up our hearts, and fix our lives on things that really matter and are eternal. We get easily agitated and worried when things do not go our ways, when God does not seem to provide for us as we like things to be, or when everyone cannot live up to our expectations! In other words, we have created our own hell and unhappiness by and for our very own selves.
Sadly, this trendy Christianity has made many people rootless and homeless. They do not have a place where they can belong. They have many that are willing to cater to what they want as they like… but nothing is really substantial and life-giving to uphold them in their times of need because there is a lack of fidelity, endurance, and perseverance in the good times and bad. Without much-needed efforts, grapevines cannot grow deep and strong if the weather and ground are simply normal, fertile, and favorable. It is the scarcity that forces the roots to go deeper to find nourishments, hence producing more resistant vines and flavorful grapes that are able to weather the climate.
Nevertheless, many scriptural readings remind us that our God is the God of the living — not the dead! He wants us to live and live life fully in His love. He is able to raise the dead to life, save us from our own perditions, and free us from our hellish enslavements to evil and the things of this world if we just believe in Him instead of Him to cater to us. My paternal grandparents lost a lot of their livelihood to the Viet Nam War. They left their hometowns, moved several times because of the escalations from the war, and lost almost everything after the Communists came in. They basically only had their faith to rely in times of little to nothing. While they lost much materialistically, they had learned much endurance and perseverance, too, especially the necessity to ground their lives in faith. They learned to depend on God in tough times and instilled that within us. When they passed away, they did not leave much except the many religious statues and articles, but most important of all, the spiritual treasures that cannot be destroyed or taken away by the changing things of this world.
It saddens me when when I do funerals where those who are alive talk much about the faith of the deceased, but looking around the congregation, one can see that many have not been in touched with their faith in a very long time. There is a sad and ironic dichotomy there! Oh, how I wish each and every one of us would honor the gift of faith given to us by our forefathers by how we choose to persevere, endure, and stay faithful to the faith handed on to us. Hence, the greatest gift and understanding in the spiritual life is the gift of contentment, to be happy and make the best with what we are given, to be filled with childlike wonder and awe in the small, extraordinary surprises and wonders God has given us in our ordinary lives.
Disciples are content because they have the Almighty in their lives, not because of what He can provide or give to them as they see fit. We are content because we have the Lord, not because of what He can do! True faith helps us be focused on the person, reality, and existence of God, loving Him as He is, imitating Him, and serving Him in one another instead of only focusing on what He can do to fit our finite, humanistic, or limited molds and expectations. Discipleship needs time to grow, and oftentimes happens whenever trials and hardships arise so our roots get more grounded and deepened in His faithfulness and everlasting love. Similarly, when we see a plant, a vine, or a tree grows, we just think it is something normal and easy, but it takes a lot of energy and efforts for it to push through the physical barriers each day — and so does our life of faith and discipleship.
How pitiful it would be if we trade eternal joy for a short life here in this world! Imagine eternity — its everlasting, beatific vision and happiness — in comparison to our finite and limited time here on this earth. Therefore, let us persevere, endure, and stay faithful to Him until the end. Let us not forget but remember the words of St. Paul, “May our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement and good hope through His grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word.” (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17) Let us encourage and pray for one another just as St. Paul reminded his own people, “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and endurance of Christ.” (3:5)