Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without;..."

Pastor Dan provides me with this new poll from the Pew Forum. The image isn't all that wonderfully readable, and I'm not sure the information is all that new. Indeed, no offense to PD, but much of what he concludes from this I'd already concluded earlier. Some of the numbers, however, are interesting in themselves:

In contrast to opinions on these questions, majorities of those who have become unaffiliated disagree with the idea that science proves religion is just superstition. Only 32% of former Catholics and the same percentage of former Protestants agree that science proves religion to be superstition, and fewer still (less than a quarter) say it was important in their conversion.
I hesitate to jump to the conclusion that the whole "God doesn't exist!" argument isn't really gaining any traction, but that would lead us off into William James territory, and I don't want to go there. It's the reason people leave churches that interests me. Perhaps it's just a personal interest, but the division is very clearly generational:

When asked a separate series of yes-or-no questions about why they left their childhood faith, more than seven-in-ten former Catholics and former Protestants (71% each) who are now unaffiliated say they just gradually drifted away from the faith, making this the most commonly offered reason by both groups. Many also say they left their former religion because they stopped believing in its teachings, with nearly two-thirds of unaffiliated former Catholics (65%) and half of unaffiliated former Protestants (50%) saying they left their childhood religion for this reason. Among both groups, roughly four-in-ten say they departed their former faith because their spiritual needs were not being met. Roughly three-in-ten former Catholics (29%) and more than one-third of former Protestants (36%) were unhappy with their former religion's teachings about the Bible. Most of those who express concerns about the religion's teachings on the Bible say their former religion interpreted the Bible too literally, with only a few saying their former faith did not follow the Bible literally enough.
The "gradual drift away" indicates one of two things to me: either a failure of habit, or a gradual change in the community that leaves the former member feeling unmoored. Which, using the life cycle of my last church as an example, seems to make the most sense.

My last church began as a small "farmer's church," founded by German settlers in what was, 150+ years ago, rural Texas. It is now urban/suburban Houston, and as unrecognizable as farm country as any portion of New York City. When it began, it drew it's membership from a homogenous community. As that community became less homogenous, the church faltered. At one point, it closed its doors, and those who wanted to attend had to ride several miles to the nearest German E&R church. It was re-opened with a new pastor who worked vigorously to encourage attendance, and it remained a "local church" and grew through the '60's, when the neighborhood was full of executives and people moving to Houston, and the church environs were on the "edge" of town, where development was booming. In that boom the church built a sanctuary large enough to hold 300 comfortably. Then the boom ended, and the membership trickled away, all but the members who still lived nearby. Their children grew up in the church, too; but they moved further out, or further away, and attendance shrank and shrank, and the church blended into the welter of buildings on the busy street, even though the sanctuary was easily the largest building on the road, for sheer height and breadth, if nothing else.

While I was a pastor of that church, two church members on separate occasions told me they'd driven by the church for years, before someone pointed it out and they realized it was there, and it was a church. Once it had been the center of the community. Today....

Today, the community has moved beyond it, and left it behind. The largest mega-churches in town (with the exception of Lakewood) have even been forced to respond to this. People simply will not drive long distances through urban areas to attend a mega-church; or not enough will, so the latest trend is to follow the development. Churches in the neighborhood of my old church (which is still basically my neighborhood now) are, as they are able, selling their buildings and moving to where "the people are." Young people with time and money, in other words. Selling a church building isn't all that easy to do (how do you repurpose a church building?) so it isn't done much, but when the opportunity arises, the churches take it. Mega-churches are following this trend by setting up "satellite campuses" (when the largest church opened their first one, the rumor among the pastors I know was that the charismatic pastor of that church flew by private helicopter out to the satellite every Sunday morning, to give the sermon that drew the crowds. It wasn't true, but it seemed like it could be.). They go, quite literally, where the people are; or at least the people they are marketing to (I'm cynical enough to put it that way because I've seen too many "mega-churches" put up billboards around town. That's marketing, not "outreach.") Why do people leave churches? Pastor Dan points out it's partly because of the lack of community or, in some evangelical churches, too much community; and it's our complicated feelings in America, about being a member of a community, and about being an individual. Well, yeah, that fits. But 71% don't have a specific reason; they just "drifted away." Given the reality of modern American life, the fractured days and time necessary just to get the necessary done, and soccer games and track events and activities that crowd into Sunday morning, or the 6+ day a week schedules, all the work that has to be crammed into the weekends (house cleaning, grocery shopping, errands, etc.), "drifting away" sounds about right. Why leave? Why go?

What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of God.
Even the anchorite who meditates alone,
For whom the days and nights repeat the praise of God,
Prays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together
But every son would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions.
Except for one or two archaic terms, you'd never know that was from the 1930's. The generation gap isn't so new after all, and while it's driven (literally, sometimes) by technology, the problem is less our technology than our devotion to technology as the "cure" for whatever ails us.

And that's a part of the "generation gap" of it all. If I prefer a "traditional" mainstream Protestant church to an evangelical one, or to one with a "modern" worship service and a pastor who thinks he should emulate Joel Osteen or Norman Vincent Peale or tell me how to have sex with my wife, where do I turn? If I seek a church composed of my generational peers, where do I find it? If I seek a church attractive to those of somewhat a like mind to mine, what would it be? Robert Wuthnow has been examining these questions for decades.

This is an interesting repudiation to the argument that failing Protestant churches aren't conservative enough:

Most of those who express concerns about the religion's teachings on the Bible say their former religion interpreted the Bible too literally, with only a few saying their former faith did not follow the Bible literally enough.
Trying to bring the teachings of Dom Crossan or Marcus Borg to a congregation, however, can be a tricky prospect. Only 36% might be inclined to embrace those teachings; perhaps many more would find them interesting and acceptable. A vocal minority, however, can easily override even 50% who are accepting or encouraging of such an approach.

And why do most of the unaffiliated join a church?

When asked whether a series of specific reasons helped lead to their first becoming affiliated with a religious group, most (51%) say they did so because their spiritual needs were not being met.
This is "new" news (check my original link; in internet terms, it's "old") again because ABCNews has picked it up and quoted the man responsible for the poll (or using it, anyway) as saying: "It's a huge change," largely because "the percentage of "nones" has now skyrocketed to between 30 percent and 40 percent among younger Americans."

Not really a surprise, though, given that the society which denigrated "free thinkers" in the 19th century is no longer around to enforce social conformity to public religious practice.

In other words, this is probably a good thing. Certainly this is:

However, new poll numbers released today from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life show that Americans are overwhelmingly open-minded about faith. A majority of Americans -- 70 percent -- say that many religions, not just their own, can lead to eternal life.
I'm also left wondering what "no religious affiliation" actually means in a post-denominational world. I know a lot of people who attended church regularly, but might not consider themselves members of the church. Denominationalism is not the social identifier it used to be; hence the rise of non-denominational churches and "mega-churches" which are practically denominations unto themselves. So it could be fewer people are going to church (which would simply be the continuation of a trend begun three decades or more ago), or it could be fewer are identifying themselves with a particular church. Mega-churches in particular are known as places where advertising is essential, because the turnover in attendees is so great. It may be a huge number of people attend a mega-church in any given time period. But how many stay there long enough to consider themselves "affiliated" with it?

We may be, in other words, simply seeing the "Bowling Alone" phenomenon in a different setting. If I learned anything about this subject in seminary (and it was old news then, over a decade ago now), it's that it's a complex one, best handled by sociologists like Robert Wuthnow, and best understood in its complexity, not from the results of one poll or another.

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