The difference between the size of the Church and its influence have always been a paradox.
Christ himself summed up the paradox neatly in a phrase: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
Christianity is filled with such paradoxes; they are important to remember, because if we emphasize one dimension of the paradox over the other, we foul up the whole thing.
For instance, Christ says in the fifth chapter of Matthew: “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” In the next chapter, he says: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.” Following the first precept alone could make you indiscreet and showy. Following the second precept alone could make you timid and unproductive.
It’s the same way when he tells us that we can expect to be a “little flock” under constant persecution on the one hand and that we are to “make disciples of all nations” on the other.
The first part should serve as a warning not to expect a comfortable, easy road, ever. The second part should serve as a warning not to give up, no matter what.
There are many conclusions one can draw from a recent Fox News poll (taken with a total sample of 900 registered voters, and with a margin of error of three percentage points). We think it’s best to look at it in the context of this paradox. The flock remains little, but its influence is all out of proportion to its size.
More than half of those polled said Christianity is under attack in America. Nearly 3 out of 4 thought that Christian symbols of Christmas were under attack. But at the same time, almost all of those who responded — 95% — said they celebrate Christmas; 83% said they put up Christmas decorations in their homes. More than 4 out of 5 thought Nativity scenes should be allowed in public.
As the Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito begin, the country is focused on church and state issues, among others. Senators are trying to define the “mainstream” of opinion in their favor. The poll left no doubt what the mainstream thinks of attempts to minimize public religious expression. More than three-fourths of those polled said the courts had gone too far in taking religion out of public life.
The poll recorded just how much its respondents want religion embraced in public. More than 9 out of 10 say the phrase “In God We Trust” should stay on U.S. currency. Exactly 9 out of 10 think the phrase “Under God” should in the Pledge of Allegiance. More than 3 out of 4 say displaying the Ten Commandments on government property should be legal. Nearly 9 out of 10 say public school calendars should include religious holidays. More than 8 out of 10 say voluntary prayer in schools should be allowed.
Christianity has indeed had great influence in America. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of concluding, based on these numbers, that America is an unabashedly Christian place and that we are not such a little flock after all. It would be too easy to conclude from the numbers that complaints that Christians are slighted in America are just so much paranoia.
First, the Christian flock turns out to be small, even in this poll. A minimal requirement of Christianity would be Sunday services. After all, when a man asked Christ, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Christ answered by directing him to the Ten Commandments and reminding him to keep holy the Sabbath day.
But while the poll showed that Americas want the Ten Commandments posted in public, it also showed that they don’t necessarily want to follow them. Only 4 out of 10 claimed they attend church services weekly; the numbers of actual attendance are even lower.
And the fact is, whatever they tell pollsters, the public has not been very effective at translating their opinions about Christianity into laws in our democracy.
Decisions by our public schools, legislatures and courts have directly contradicted the majority opinions of Americans on the several items in this poll. Most public schools won’t set aside time for a moment of silence, let alone public prayer. And even voluntary prayer is banned at public schools. The Ten Commandments aren’t just banned in public schools — they have been forcibly removed from government property.
So, what to make of all this?
We’re a small flock with a great mission. We shouldn’t feel hopeless; we can command great swaths of public opinion. But we shouldn’t feel complacent, either.
Which leaves us right back to the paradox with which we began: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen to give you the Kingdom.”