That American Christianity is in a rough spot is no longer in dispute. More than a quarter of adults have left the faith of their parents. The number of people unaffiliated with any religion—the “religious nones” in popular parlance—stands at 16 percent of Americans, increasing to one-in-four in the critical 18-29 age group. Survey after survey shows that Americans are attending worship services less frequently, fleeing major denominations, and growing more skeptical of religion with each passing year.
And then, along comes Francis. The Argentinian pontiff has already ruffled holy feathers with a simple, radical message on abortion and gay rights, and with efforts to reform the bureaucracy of the Vatican. But it is his ideas on church renewal that are perhaps most profound, and have the deepest ramifications for the way believers practice their faith.
On October 4, the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi, the contemporary Francis traveled to the birthplace of his namesake. Ministering in a soup kitchen among Assisi’s poverty-stricken residents, the pope recalled how Saint Francis once stood in front of his rich father, stripped off the clothes that symbolized the trappings of his wealth, and declared that his true father was Jesus, and true family the poor.
Pope Francis used this story to assert that, like that first Francis, Christians have on too many clothes. We must “lay ourselves bare,” he said, and “divest ourselves from this worldliness: the spirit contrary to the spirit of the beatitudes, the spirit contrary to the spirit of Jesus.” He repeated this command to “strip ourselves” of worldliness several times and concluded with a flourish: “Spiritual worldliness kills! It kills the soul! It kills the Church!”
What a phrase: spiritual worldliness. How can something be at the same time worldly, and spiritual? The answer is, it can’t, and Francis knows this well. He is slyly saying that our spirituality is often a farce, that the church has for years draped itself in clothes that masquerade as holy but are actually just earthly rags.
It’s not a stretch to think that Francis is pointing his finger across the ocean at so much of what has characterized American Christianity over the past 30 years. The empty layers of denomination and doctrine that have little to do with grace. The gospels of health and wealth that stand in contradiction to the gospel of Christ. The political rhetoric and advocacy that claim the mantel of the eternal for decidedly temporal causes.
In his quiet way, Pope Francis is saying, enough is enough. It’s time to get back to the basics. Time to shed the garments of false religion, and lay ourselves bare at the foot of the cross.
And while his remarks have roiled some in the Christian establishment, their net effect can only be beneficial for the church. Francis understands what many leaders have failed to grasp: the best way to protect Christianity is to have more Christians. The best way to ensure religious freedom is to give folks a reason to believe in religion again.
And he’s right. I have never met a lost soul saved by the culture war battles that are fought in Washington. But I do know many sinners who have been saved by grace. When Pope Francis leads with grace, with his “laid bare” doctrine of a simple faith, he is effectively kicking the doors of the church wide open and welcoming more people in.
This type of faith is intimidating, and not for the faint of heart. It requires great confidence in the core principles of the gospel, enough confidence to place the life and message of Jesus at the forefront, and everything else—particularly partisan politics and narrow agendas—far behind. But if Christians can muster the courage to strip off false religion and stand clothed in grace alone, we might yet save the American church. Here’s hoping for a bit of Francis’s naked faith.