Friday, October 30, 2009

The PARADE passing us by (Sunday Reflections for November 1, 2009)

Last month, PARADE magazine (the Sunday newspaper insert) reported the results of a national survey it conducted on religious attitudes and practices. Here are a few of its questions and answers.

1. Which of the following best describes you?
I consider myself a religious person 45%
I'm not religious but I observe the holidays/traditions of my religion 17%
I'm not religious but I am a spiritual person 24%
I'm neither religious nor spiritual 14%

3. Are you more or less religious than your parents?
More 19%
Less 38%
About the same 43%

6. How important is religion in your life?
Religion is the most important thing in my life 24%
Religion is an important part of my life, but not the most important 33%
Religion is part of my life, but not particularly important 22%
Religion is not a factor in my life 22%

9. How often do you attend religious services?
Rarely 30%
Never 20%

(The survey’s full results can be found here.)

For anyone who has been paying attention to national religious polls in recent years little of the PARADE survey results will come as a surprise. Nor should they come as surprise to anyone active in religious organizations in this country. They shouldn’t—yet it seems they still do.

I write frequently about the decline of religious activity and belief and if you’ve read those previous stories you may be thinking, “What, again?” But as I talk about these kinds of reports and listen to others talk about the state of organized religions, I continue to experience denial, disbelief or incomprehension. It’s not that people reject these kind of results as much as it is a kind of deafness and blindness—the proverbial head-in-the-sand. “If I don’t look at it maybe it will go away.”

Briefly, here’s what PARADE’s survey tells us. Over half of those asked do not consider themselves religious. For each person saying they are more religious than their parents, two say they are less religious. More than 4 in 10 say religion has little or no importance to them and half say they rarely if ever attend worship. At the same time over 80% believe in God or a higher power and three-quarters of respondents pray at least once-in-awhile. Only 1 in 10 believes theirs is the true religion while 60% say all religions are equally valid.

One interesting question PARADE asked was what movie dealing with spiritual themes people liked the best. The winner at 25% was the religious classic Ten Commandments. Over half, however, selected a not traditionally religious film, such as Ghost (the next most popular), It’s A Wonderful Life, Da Vinci Code, or Sixth Sense.

The survey doesn't help us much in understanding trends (no comparison with previous results) or with demographic differences (region, age, gender). When combined with other recent surveys, however, the picture is pretty clear. Interest in organized religion is falling and falling fast. Some of this is the result of people discontinuing religious involvement but more is due to younger people not adopting the religious practice of older generations. At the same time, however, people continue to be interested in spirituality and spiritual practices (and fairly conventionally as there was little interest in either astrology or psychics).

The implications, obviously, are sobering and ominous for America’s traditional religious organizations. We can expect that congregations will continue to close and national and regional church budgets and programs will continue to be reduced. The question is whether any creative response is possible. To this point, most churches have followed the strategy of “if it doesn’t work, do more of it.” For thirty years (at least) church administrators and independent gurus have trotted out one “exciting” innovation or program after another. Unfortunately they all have born a striking resemblance to each year’s “new” lineup from GM, soon forgotten as more of the same.

It isn’t very daring to prophesy a Christianity decades hence shrunken to a cultural footnote. As people today say “Let’s go to the Amish country in Pennsylvania,” tour guides in the near future may be giving bus trips to see the Lutherans in Minnesota. Already today, many churches in Europe are operated mostly as museums supported by taxes, admission fees and tourist contributions.

Unfortunately, most people within churches can’t imagine such a scenario or dare think of it. As a result, for example, the ELCA continues to operate eight seminaries despite having lost nearly a quarter of its membership. Similarly, we continue to imagine ministry done primarily by congregations with expensive, stand-alone buildings and expensive, full-time professional clergy. The impracticality and even impossibility of this, however, will soon be impossible to ignore.

Shrinking the church, while inevitable, is by itself not a response but a capitulation. Perhaps realistically it’s all the church can do. I keep wondering, however, how the church can re-invent and re-imagine itself to be a cultural agent for genuine good which addresses the needs of people and society as they really are today.

There is so much about the church and Christianity that we consider “non-negotiable.” Much of that, however, is exactly what people today have no interest in or use for: our traditions, liturgies, structures, theology and doctrines. Yet those same people continue to need and look for values, ethics, meaning, beauty, and spiritual depth for their lives—those things which religion has provided across cultures and across the ages.

In the midst of all this I continue to think of Jesus and his practicality. He reached out to meet the needs of people whoever they were and wherever they were. He was happy to just eat and drink with people. He showed little interest in participating in formal religion and was highly critical of its leadership. He showed the most interest in people society said were of little or no importance. And his philosophy was stunningly simple yet true to the scriptural tradition: love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself. It just seems that somewhere in there ought to be the seeds for a renewed and reborn church and Christianity.


Peter/Lenore said...

Hi Doug: I was wondering what you were up to in the last few years, and there you are in facebook.

I don't see the decline reported in Parade Magazine quite so negatively. Calling it the 500 year garage sale (Phyllis Tickle) works for me. And we need garage sales now and then.

If Phyllis is right, and the garage sale is more or less over, then the question, that you asked too, is, what is emerging, and where. Intrestingly, she locates the emerging with where power is located.

The reformation located power in scripture (which doesn't work any longer). Catholicism located it in the church, which hasn't worked for a longer period. The first century also had a power struggle - is Caesar really lord??

So when we relocate power socially,the new will emerge. Where is power today?

Peter Kane

Doug said...

Peter, it is good to re-connect with you and see that you're hanging in with this stuff. How are the rest of the "Sponges" doing?

I am afraid that from what I see the deterioration is actually accelerating. Locally, we're closing churches left and right. In our synod 2/3 of congregations are declining and less than 15% are growing. And the primary source of their growth? Transfers from other ELCA churches.

The rest of the ELCA is not much different and the layoffs at ELCA hq have made it a pretty grim place. I have no doubt a major reorganization will be necessary in the near future (fewer depts, fewer synods, fewer seminaries, etc.). All the mainline churches are in the same boat and now some conservative churches (e.g. Southern Baptists) are seeing their membership go flat.

Tickle's Great Emergence has gotten a lot of attention, which has included both praise and criticism. She is certainly right that a major transformation is under way and, as you indicate, she honestly doesn't try to predict what will emerge.

I do wonder, however, if "estate sale" isn't a better description than garage sale. I believe we are in the midst of a dramatic cultural transformation which is by no means over. I am intrigued by looking at it from the perspective of power and will need to think about that more. From what I've read, most prognosticators say we are entering a world where information (having it, controling it, manipulating it) is the locus of power. That does sound like it might be the right direction to look, so you've given me something new to chew on--thanks!

Peter/Lenore said...

Doug: Your posts keep coming faster than I can absorb them. You always did have the knack for good writing. The “Sponges” are doing fine. We still are a church that can chew on difficult books, and have learned, through some pain, to (usually) respect diversity. The seed did germinate. Also, estate sale works for me.
I am still playing with ‘power’ myself. It seems like human history is about first marveling at the unknown, then exploring it, then mastering it, then figuring out how to dominate it, then a remnant catching a glimpse of a larger unknown, then more marveling…… Flood plain civilizations like the Nile come to mind. (We recently visited the King Tut exhibit in Indy.)
There is the power that learns to control such a world as the Nile. And the power expresses itself in gods and the human ruler god. And there is the second power which subverts that control. Same with Rome, where Caesar is savior, the bringer of peace, redeemer, etc. And the nativity stories claim all those titles in the name of another power (another god). How quickly Paul went from Galilean Sage to Messiah myth. But the subverting power was already there for that to happen so quickly.
You could make a parallel with the Reformation with the Church as power, and the rising influence of the powerless with their new tool, the printing press. And not surprisingly, the printed cannon became the myth of subverting power.
So where is controlling power today? The whole earth is more and more the Nile civilization. And our tool is the computer. My wife says I go in my cave and hide from people in the computer, to which I always respond that the computer is the most advanced human communication tool ever developed. Until twittering at least.
But where is the subverting power now? And where is the myth that energizes that power? Not sure, but possible candidates: Hubble pictures of galaxies, and an image of the blue marble.