Religious Observance in Western Europe and the U.S.

I recently came across an interesting article which was primarily about religious observance in western Europe, but which also compared that region with the United States. Even though this research is four years old, it’s still timely and points out some significant differences between these two geographical areas.

First of all, what is meant by “religious observance?” There were four measures of this in the study in terms of comparing western Europe and the U.S. Here they are, with percentages of professing Christians in western Europe (15 countries) and the United States who:

  • Say religion is very important in their lives: Western Europe 14%, U.S. 68%
  • Attend religious services at least monthly: Western Europe 31%, U.S. 64%
  • Pray daily: Western Europe 18%, U.S. 68%
  • Believe in God with absolute certainty: Western Europe 23%, U.S. 76%

It doesn’t take any rigorous statistical analysis to see the huge differences in religious observance between western Europe and the United States! Across the board, professing American Christians are significantly more religiously observant than professing western European Christians. The second stunning thing is that these are stats for professing Christians. A significant majority of professing American Christians, for example, pray daily (68%), while only a paltry 18% of professing western European Christians do the same. A word of caution is in order here, however; are American Christians praying to the one and only true God, the God Who has revealed Himself in Scripture? My fellow blogger and sister in Christ Ann, who goes by “Seeking Divine Perspective,” is in the process of writing a good series of posts entitled “Are You Praying to the Wrong Person?” Click here for the latest in her series: https://seekingdivineperspective.com/2022/11/25/are-you-praying-to-the-wrong-person-part-iv-fallen-angels/

Regarding the last stat mentioned above: Even the percentage of professing western European Christians who believe in God with absolute certainty is a paltry 23%, while in the U.S., the percentage is 76%. I should add that I would love to see corresponding stats for this question: “Do you read the Bible regularly?”

What does all of this mean? First of all, it’s very easy to say that you’re a Christian in the Western world; it is not easy if you live in a country with severe persecution. Second, these stats bring to mind what Charles Colson wrote and spoke about more than 30 years ago: that western Europe was post-Christian, meaning that it used to be largely Christian, but was not anymore. Now we can see that stark reality on display very clearly. Western Europeans who stopped identifying with a religion mentioned four primary reasons why:

  • Gradually drifting away from religion: 68%
  • Disagreeing with their religion’s positions on social issues: 58%
  • No longer believing in their religion’s teachings: 54%
  • Being unhappy about scandals involving religious institutions and leaders: 53%

I find the #1 reason especially enlightening; in so many cases, when people stop identifying with Christianity in the U.S., it’s because they have gradually drifted away; in other words, it’s not usually something that happens suddenly. (I mentioned this in a post in May about deconversion.) Regarding the second reason, you will not be surprised to learn that two social issues frequently mentioned were abortion and same-sex marriage. There are many other illuminating findings in this research study; I have only scratched the surface. If you’re interested in more, here’s the link: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2018/05/29/being-christian-in-western-europe/

Perhaps as American Christians, we are tempted to pat ourselves on the back in comparison to western Europe. We might even think that we are a majority-Christian nation. However, since the actual percentage of American Christians is only 7.5% (!), we have no reason to be smug, to put it mildly. You can either read John Dickerson’s The Great Evangelical Recession for the research regarding this number, or you can just read something I wrote in 2020: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2020/05/07/how-many-christians-are-there-in-the-united-states/ I read a few years ago that Spain’s population was less than 1% Christian; I have also read the same about Slovenia (which is not one of the 15 nations included in the Pew Research study which is the focus of this post). It is not hard to believe that further research such as Dickerson wrote about would reveal similar, astonishingly-low, percentages of true Christians in other western European countries.

These statistics about western Europe should serve as a warning to us. Regardless of what happens, we are called to stand firm in our faith by living in obedience to God’s Word. Speaking of: If we are going to live in that kind of obedience, we need, first of all, to be in God’s Word regularly! Ideally, that would be daily, while for some of us, perhaps a few times a week. Regardless, we should certainly not rely only on our pastors’ faithfully teaching us every Sunday. Second, however, we do need to be in close fellowship with other believers, and one place that can certainly happen is at church. Third, we should be praying daily; in fact, 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says, “Pray continually.” I like even better the way the King James Version puts it: “Pray without ceasing.” If we are in the Bible, in koinonia (close fellowship), and in prayer regularly, we will be much better equipped to live the kind of obedient lives that our Lord calls us to, regardless of the overall spiritual condition of our nation.

More about Being Thankful vs. Complaining

A year ago, I wrote a post about being thankful vs. complaining. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, as well as preparing for my first sermon ever that weekend, I’ve been thinking about this contrast again. This year, I’d like to look at some examples from Old Testament Israel, especially focusing on the results of being thankful vs. grumbling.

Let’s begin with Exodus 16:2-3, where we read: “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.’”  What makes this grumbling especially egregious is that this was almost immediately after the Lord had delivered the Israelites from being slaves in Egypt!

One chapter later, we read another example: “The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’  Moses replied, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?’  But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?’”  Exodus 17:1-3 

In both of these cases in Exodus, the Lord was very gracious to the Israelites in spite of their grumbling.  In Exodus 16, He gave the people manna and quail; in Chapter 17, He gave them water.  Now, let’s look at Numbers 11:1-6: “Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp.   When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the LORD and the fire died down. So that place was called Taberah, because fire from the LORD had burned among them. The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!‘”  This time when the Israelites complained, the Lord sent fire, which killed some of them.  However, they soon resumed complaining, asking for meat.  If you read the end of the chapter, you will find that the Lord gave them quail to eat, but He also sent a severe plague which killed some of them.  Verse 33 says they died “while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed.”  They didn’t even get to enjoy the meat which they had craved!  Sometimes in the Old Testament, the price of grumbling against the Lord was death.

What happened when the Israelites praised the Lord instead of grumbling?  Look at 2 Chronicles 20, where three nations gathered to fight against the Kingdom of Judah.  In verses 21-23, we read this: “After consulting the people, Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying:  ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for his love endures forever.’”  As they began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated.  The men of Ammon and Moab rose up against the men from Mount Seir to destroy and annihilate them. After they finished slaughtering the men from Seir, they helped to destroy one another.”  In this battle, notice that God’s people did not even have to fight their enemies!  The Lord caused their enemies to destroy one another.  What had God’s people done?  They had sung and praised the Lord, and as a result, He brought about a great victory!

How do we apply this to our daily lives? First of all, when we pray, do we bring to the Lord only a list of requests, or do we also thank Him? Second, how do we react to problems? Here’s an example: A couple of months ago, my wife was on her way to a conference when she was broadsided on the freeway by a guy who had also just broadsided another vehicle. You would think that traveling at 65 mph, serious injury would result. However, no one in any of the three vehicles was hurt. In addition, my wife’s vehicle was still drivable, so she was able to continue on her way to the conference. Were my wife and I thankful? You bet!

There are other examples I could cite as well; you can read a more-extended example in this post: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2021/11/17/being-thankful-vs-complaining/ One thing I have continually been thankful for over the years is the timing of problems; in other words, I expect to have them, but the Lord has been gracious in allowing them when I have the time to deal with them. Another thing I have been thankful for again and again is that the problems have not been more serious.

A special word about grief:  Over a period of ten months not too long ago, three of my siblings died.  Then this year, my father-in-law died as well.  Is it possible to be thankful in this circumstance?  My answer is yes, because all three of my siblings and my father-in-law were believers, which means they are now with the Lord.  Do I miss them?  For sure.  However, when I think of them in heaven, it’s impossible for me to be sad—for them.  One of my sisters, for example, was mentally handicapped from birth, but now she is free from that handicap, in the presence of the Lord.  My other two siblings suffered from dementia in their last few years, but now they are free from it, also in His presence.  As I said, I miss them, but I look forward to being reunited with them when the Lord takes me home! On the other hand, I recently talked with a relative whose husband had died.  Even though he was a believer, his widow reminded me that losing a spouse is different from losing a sibling.  Yes, it’s harder, and I acknowledge that.  In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine losing my wife; that would be very difficult.  However, we are both believers, and I know that even when we are parted here on this earth, we will see each other again in heaven.

In the immediacy of a problem, it can be difficult to be thankful; however, when we reflect on it, it’s usually not difficult to find things to thank the Lord for.  Are you a thankful person?  Am I?  Let’s be characterized by thankfulness to the Lord, not complaining.

Have a most blessed Thanksgiving!

Optimism vs. Pessimism

How do you view the future? Do you look ahead with hopefulness and confidence? If so, you are an optimist; if not, you are a pessimist. 47% percent of Americans are either very or somewhat optimistic, while 53% of us are generally, somewhat, or very pessimistic; this is all in relation to the perceived direction of the U.S. moving forward. One thing that I find interesting is that there is no significant difference if you break it down by either generation or educational level. However, if you break it down by race, there are significant differences. 64% of Black Americans feel at least somewhat optimistic about the future; for Asian Americans, it’s 59%; for Hispanics, 55%; and for White Americans, only 41%. All of these figures are according to Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College. Looking a little deeper: those who are optimistic focus on the long arc of history, while those who are pessimistic focus more on recent events. Much more could be said about these racial differences, but let’s move on.

Looking at the future on a more individual level, Heather Lonczak, Ph.D., wrote an interesting article last year; you can access it here: https://positivepsychology.com/pessimism-vs-optimism/ She quotes a fairly recent 18-year study (Chipperfield et al., 2019) of elderly Canadians which assessed their health expectations and health outcomes. The result? “The researchers found that having realistically pessimistic (versus unrealistically optimistic) health expectations was related to both reduced depressive symptoms and risk of death. Similarly, unrealistic optimism (versus realistic optimism) when health is deteriorating was associated with a 313% higher death rate.” These findings introduce a third way of looking at things: realism, which is seeing a situation for what it actually is and dealing with it accordingly. Notice in this quote that both realistic optimism and realistic pessimism resulted in less depression and lower risk of death than unrealistic optimism. One might expect that optimism would always result in better health, but that’s not the case. To emphasize this, Lonczak gives the example of Stephanie, a 32-year-old who initially follows doctor’s orders and feels better. However, because she is unrealistically optimistic (“I feel fine!”), Stephanie fails to maintain her lifestyle changes and is soon in the ER. (An aside: I roll my eyes whenever I hear people say, “Everything will be all right.”)

Here is a humorous way of comparing pessimism, optimism, and realism, also from Lonczak’s article:

“A pessimist sees a dark tunnel.
An optimist sees light at the end of the tunnel.
A realist sees a freight train.
A train driver sees three idiots standing on the tracks.”

So far, I have mentioned looking at the future from an American national perspective and an individual perspective. It’s also possible to think about it from a global perspective, of course. More importantly, however, let’s look at it from a Biblical perspective. Does the Bible give us reason to look to the future with hopefulness and confidence?

In 1989, Charles Colson wrote a book called Against the Night. He wrote about the demise of Western culture (in the home, in the classroom, in politics, and in the church) as the “new dark ages.” I suppose the average American or other “westerner” would call him a “pessimist” or at least a realist, but 33 years later, his words ring truer than ever. I suppose that means I’m a pessimist as well, but only in terms of the future of the world as a whole. I believe that the Bible is very clear that the world will become ever more sinful before our Lord’s return. Read 2 Timothy 3:1-4, for example: “But mark this: there will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, [and] lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” What a sobering list of sins!

Now read Revelation 21:3-4, where the apostle John reports what God says when the new heaven and new earth are revealed: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'”

We have good reason to be “pessimistic” about the direction this world is going, but oh, my: we have so much more reason to be “optimistic,” to put it mildly, when we get to the end of the Book! Speaking of: Near the end of his book called “Here Are Your Gods” (a rather remarkable book about idolatry, from the Old Testament to the present day), Christopher Wright writes this: “Biblical Christian hope was never mere optimism. Optimism imagines that things will get better–eventually. Christian hope knows that things may well get much worse (indeed Jesus said that they would), but God is still sovereign, and God is good, and God is just. Christian hope knows that the future belongs to the kingdom of God. Christian hope knows that the judge of all the earth will do right. Evil will not have the last word. God will ultimately judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous.” Notice that Wright uses the word “hope” four times. Yes, this is the kind of hope that we have as believers! Notice also his reference to God’s being sovereign: I wrote a post the day after the presidential election two years ago about God’s sovereignty; I think it applies equally well to next week’s important mid-term elections. Click here if you’re interested: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2020/11/04/god-is-in-control/

When all is said and done, I am incredibly optimistic–not regarding the future of this world, but because of the next one and the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If that does not describe you, I pray that today will be the day when you put your faith in Him.

Changing Halloween Traditions

When I taught ESL (to adults), one of the things I liked to spend at least a few minutes on as they rolled around every year were American holidays. Most holidays are fairly simple to describe and explain, but Halloween is not one of them. I tried a couple of times to look at the history of it with my students, but I eventually just focused on Halloween traditions, especially trick-or-treating, as this was something that would directly affect them. We talked about things like costumes (including masks), jack-o’-lanterns, handing out candy (or not), and the symbolism of the colors orange and black. I also told them about my own family’s Halloween tradition; more on that later.

As I have thought about Halloween over the years, the one overriding, pervasive theme of it has been fear, which is often reflected in Halloween costumes. This in turn has caused me to reflect on the depiction of monsters throughout the history of cinema, which strongly influences costumes. I used to watch vampire movies, and I have come to realize that the depiction of them has changed rather dramatically over the years. In Dracula (Bela Lugosi, 1931), Horror of Dracula (Christopher Lee, 1958), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Jack Palance, 1974), the vampire is portrayed as an evil creature who must be (and is) destroyed. This continued in 1979 with Salem’s Lot, a miniseries. However, also in 1979, there was a remarkable change in the movie Dracula (Frank Langella); he is romanticized (quite literally), and whether he is actually destroyed or not at the end of the movie is ambiguous. Jumping ahead to 1994, Interview with the Vampire also romanticizes the creatures; furthermore, they are not destroyed, although others are. I mention all of these specific titles because I have seen them, I’m not proud to say, and I don’t recommend them; after Interview, I stopped watching vampire movies. However, I’m well aware of the Twilight series of movies (2008-2012) and the strong romanticism of the creatures in them. I find this evolution of vampires in cinema to be disturbing. On the one hand, the earlier monsters were scarier (and often ugly), but at least they were portrayed as evil that was to be destroyed. The more-current monsters, on the other hand, are often portrayed as very attractive, romantic, and not necessarily evil. I’m not very familiar with movies and shows about witches (which is just as well), but compare the wicked witch of the west in The Wizard of Oz (1939) with the witches in the original Charmed TV series (1998-2006). Based on what I see online about these three witches all being “good” witches, you can see a similar change in portrayal. The current Hocus Pocus 2 is listed as a “comedy” for “kids and family,” which also tells you something.

When I think about Halloween traditions, I have also noticed a dramatic change. When I was a boy in the 1960s, only elementary-school and younger kids trick-or-treated in my community. Jumping to the early 1990s, after being overseas for a few years, my wife and I returned to the U.S. One thing we noticed was that trick-or-treating had expanded to include teens. In addition, we began to hear about Halloween parties for adults. Costumes were becoming more sophisticated. While little kids wore very cute costumes, some teen costumes were becoming scarier. In some cases, costumes were even sexualized, especially for adults, but also some teens. I certainly don’t see a one-to-one correspondence between the changing portrayal of vampires (and witches) in cinema and changing Halloween costumes and traditions, but there are some striking similarities.

With all that said: What’s a Christian to do on Halloween? I have known brothers and sisters who refuse to participate in any way; they keep their outdoor lights off and either stay home or go elsewhere. Some churches have “Alternative Halloween Parties” or “Fall Festivals.” Some believers participate very “normally” by taking their younger kids trick-or-treating. Some believers hang out in their front yards and play Christian music, serve food (besides candy!), or get even more creative. Many years ago when our kids were little, my wife and I decided that we wanted to get the Gospel out in some way to all of these kids coming to our door. While one of us took our own kids trick-or-treating (my wife was very creative with their costumes), the other stayed home. We had decided to write up a message and attach it to each piece of candy that we handed out. Here are a few examples of messages that we have written over the years:

  • For many people, Halloween is a time to fear.  Witches, ghosts, and the like may be fun, but at the same time they can cause fear.  But the Lord says to those who know Him, “Don’t fear because I am with you and will guide you.”  Have a fun–and fearless–Halloween.
  • Since the events of Sept. 11, many people in our country have been scared.  Halloween has also traditionally been a scary holiday.  However, if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you have nothing to fear.  “Perfect love drives out fear.”  (I John 4:18)  Have a fun and fearless Halloween.
  • Many changes are taking place in our country and in the rest of the world.  This has caused some people to be afraid.  If you believe in Jesus Christ, however, you have no reason to fear.  Have a fun, fearless Halloween.
  • Taste and see that the Lord is good. (Psalm 34: 8 in the Bible)

Our young trick-or-treaters arrive first and don’t care about the messages, of course. However, we usually have a pretty good number of teens a little later. Some of them (even in groups) stop to read the messages before they continue on their way. Our 9/11 message resonated with at least one teen, who the following year told us that it had meant a lot to him. One year, a teen said, “Hey, we remember you; you’re the guys who hand out the cool messages!”

It is not my intention to criticize Christians who choose not to interact with their community on Halloween night. Each person/family needs to decide before the Lord what they are going to do. Speaking of: I’d be especially interested in knowing what you choose to do on this holiday. Regardless, have a fun–and especially fearless–Halloween!

A Tale of Three Churches

I recently had conversations with two brothers from another church in my community about the lockdowns during COVID, specifically regarding church closures in our state (California). This caused me to think more about the responses of their church, my own church, and another church (also in our community) to the lockdown directives. To begin with, let me present brief narratives about each church’s response to the governor’s changing directives.

  • The church that my two brothers are a part of (now about 500) initially locked down in March of 2020 for a few weeks and then reopened. However, after a few more weeks, they locked down again. Then they decided to meet outdoors (on the church property), but by then, morning temperatures were in the 50s, so after a few more weeks, they decided to move indoors, to a different building on the church “campus,” but with the doors open. While initially an improvement, by this time, it was getting even colder outside, so the indoor temperature was still cold, especially since they didn’t turn on the heat (to save money?); this continued for about five months. Eventually, in late March of 2021, the church returned to “normal.” Throughout the duration, and continuing today, the church has been livestreaming its services. Small groups met sporadically during the yo-yo year, some online, and others in people’s backyards.
  • My own church (70+) locked down in March of 2020 and stayed that way until July of 2021, when we reopened. Throughout the duration, and continuing today, my church has been livestreaming its services. Our small groups (for all ages) met very regularly throughout the lockdown and have continued to do so. Since reopening, we have expanded our Sunday mornings to include Sunday school.
  • The third church (~3000, just now reported to me) locked down in March of 2020 and reopened about four months later, in July. At the first service after reopening, the pastor told the congregation that they shouldn’t have closed in the first place and that they would never close again. They continue to livestream their services, and they have plenty of small groups.

My intention is not to try to say which of these three churches did the “best” and which did the “worst.” I’m sure that different people reading this would respond very differently in that regard. However, regarding the first church, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple of things. First of all, one of the brothers, who is a deacon, admitted that in hindsight, maybe they should have never locked down in the first place. The other brother expressed a lot of frustration about the church’s lockdown. He is older, and his family is not comfortable using technology; as a result, he felt isolated during the lockdown. His primary means of connecting with other believers was via telephone, which he did plenty of (including with me), but he sorely missed being face-to-face with other believers. He said that his sentiments were echoed by other older people in the church. My own church, in contrast, had regular small-group meetings throughout the lockdown. Also, because we are a small church, we were able to make sure that all of our members were taken care of. The deaconess in charge of our caring ministry contacted our elderly members, especially, on a very regular basis, making sure their various needs were met, including with technology. However, my frustrated brother from Church #1 reported to me that neither he nor any other elderly members that he was talking to had received a phone call from the church leadership during the first six months of lockdown.

This is not a “political” blog, but I would also be remiss if I didn’t say something about Governor Gavin Newsom’s lockdown directives. When you allow strip clubs, casinos, and “recreational cannabis dispensaries” to remain open because they are deemed to be providing “essential services,” but you lock down churches… need I say more?

There are two Scriptures that I noticed coming up again and again during COVID in relation to the church lockdown directives. One of them is Romans 13:1-2, which tells us, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” The second Scripture is Hebrews 10:25, which tells us, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Throughout the pandemic, churches had to make their decisions, as they always should, on Scripture.

Church #1 seems to have been influenced more by Romans 13:1-2 than by Hebrews 10:25.

Church #2, my own church, may seem on the surface to have been influenced more by the Romans verses as well. However, every Sunday morning after the benediction, people could stay on Zoom and talk for a while. More significantly, as I mentioned earlier, all of our small groups, for all ages, continued throughout the lockdown without interruption. For myself and my wife, our couples’ Friday night Zoom gatherings were (and still are) incredible times of true koinonia. Our church also sometimes had outdoor social gatherings during COVID. So, did we “give up meeting together?” Only if you narrowly interpret this to mean being together regularly in person; we had very regular, blessed times of seeing each other face to face via Zoom. While I would have preferred to remain in person throughout COVID, I respect my church leaders’ decision.

Church #3 boldly made the decision to resume meeting in person after just a few months; remember also that the pastor said they shouldn’t have closed in the first place. They were clearly influenced primarily by Hebrews 10:25. In other words, they decided that it overrode Romans 13:1-2 because the governor had issued a directive that went against the Biblical directive to meet together; furthermore, he had allowed some “essential services” that promoted sinful behavior to remain open. It was, in essence, an act of civil disobedience.

Looking ahead, as I’ve mentioned before in a couple of previous posts, I believe more plagues will be coming. I hope that our political leaders will not be so foolish as to institute lockdowns again; I don’t think Americans would put up with such a devastating policy next time. If you’re interested in why I think the lockdowns were wrong, you can look at a Johns Hopkins study that came out in early February of this year, or you can just click here: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2022/02/09/how-effective-were-the-lockdowns/