Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Religion in America

I was pointed to this survey by a friend. It is a very detailed survey of religious attitudes in America. The information is very interesting and thought provoking. I give it credence because they have been using the same methodology over many years, so even if they are wrong, they should at least show trends well. The trend, if you are a mainline Christian like myself, is not a good one. The old churches in every town, the Methodist and Presbyterian ones, are basically in a free fall. Catholicism is holding steady, but basically only because of immigration from Central and South America. Evangelical Christianity has continued to explode to now well over 8 million adherents. Overall adherence to any religion is also down. I encourage you to read the survey and respond to my thoughts below.

1. It is interesting that old mainline Protestant churches are in decline. My church is growing, so I really cannot speak to what others in my denomination are going through. My church is First Presbyterian of Plymouth, in MI. I would say that we are probably gaining more members from megachurches now then we are losing to them. I'll talk about that a little in my next point. My guess is a lot of the decline in these mainline churches is in small towns, where there was always a Methodist or Presbyterian church. Now that population is getting older and the church is therefore shrinking.

2. The megachurch phenomenon, in my opinion, is peaking, if not already in decline. I want to make it clear that in no way am I ripping on the megachurch concept, more just an opinion based on my anecdotal observations as head of our new member committee. megachurches will continue to play a vital role in Christian life, but I believe that while VERY good at making new Christians (something us mainliners struggle with sometimes), they are not the best at feeding the soul of someone who is past the introduction stage. Of course there are many exceptions to this, but we gain members from megachurches who say they are looking for more depth in their church experience. Less show and more substance is something along the lines of what they say. Some are also seeking a more intimate experience.

3. As the report points out, over 30% of mainline protestants consider themselves born again. The lines between mainline and evangelical will continue to blur in the future. For some it is more about worship style; we have a full choir and a pipe organ and most evangelical churches have a video screen and a praise band. Nothing wrong with either style, just different for different people. You are also seeing a trend being championed by mainline churches called "emergent worship". This blends traditional elements of worship with intimacy and involvement often seen at evangelical churches. Think the worship service the Disciples had in a room when they gathered together.

4. Overall adherence to any organized religion is also down. Fifteen percent of all Americans claim they have no religious beliefs at all. People have commented to me that this is sad, and that it is a shame that religion is in decline in America. I honestly don't think that religious belief is in decline, I think claiming no religion has just become less taboo. Back in the 1950's, everyone went to church. Even if you did not believe, you probably went to church. Now people have the freedom to choose not to go without losing social status or being stigmatized. There is also the opinion put forth by people like Leonard Pitts, Jr. in his column here. Basically he says religion is corrupt, and if you just look at the headlines, a rational person would not accept the authority religion has claimed over God. I can readily see his point, but the great thing about America is that if you believe that religion is corrupt, you're free to start your own church.

I feel the Christianity will be just fine in the coming decades and centuries. We must remain relevant and vital to the communities we serve. Churches must come to realize that they are no longer the de facto social outlet for their community. I would expect overall levels of religious adherence to fall for a few more years and then stabilize and maybe slightly increase as the children of people who made the conscious choice to not go to church based on Mr. Pitts assessment start searching for something more in their lives. We'll be here waiting with open arms.


Rosiecat said...

Thanks for the interesting post, JD! I'm glad to live in a land where people are free to pursue the faith they choose. But I confess: evangelicals frighten me.

I've always found the concept of an evangelical atheist hilarious! "Come, join us as we lament our fate at the cruel hands of nature! Come celebrate an eternity of oblivion with us!"

Yes, heaven sounds so much nicer than oblivion, don't you think?

JD said...

Yes, heaven does have that eternal joyous paradise ring to it. I know there is a definite appeal there. Much better then oblivion...what is oblivion anyway?

Rosiecat said...

Oblivion is my way of describing the bleakest of all possible options after death: we simply cease to exist. You can see now why atheists have a hard time attracting new people! For the most part, now I feel that if your spirituality increases your quality of life, then it's probably a good thing. We just don't know what exists on the other side of this life.