Why are Americans turning away from organized religion? Three reasons occur to me, and number three will be the focus of this post. One, the social climate of today makes it more acceptable for someone to be an atheist or a member of an “alternative” religion like Wicca than it was two or three decades ago, so such people are more likely to “come out,” as it were. Two, is important to recognize that when the uninitiated look at organized religion, they think of the hierarchy and authority of the Catholic Church, the violence of modern Christian history, the divisiveness of the Religious Right, and the moneyed country club hypocrisy of so much mainline Protestantism. They think organized religion seeks to control what people think, and want no part in its hypocrisy.
Organized religion has its flaws, that’s certainly true. The Catholics know worship and history like nobody’s business, but many bishops hid the pedophiles. American Evangelicals know the benefits of grace and technology, but fail to take into account the complexities of the wider world. Even the emerging church, for all its wisdom on social matters, gets a little full of itself from time to time. But I think the real reason so many Americans are turning away from organized religion isn’t because they do know its negatives, but because they don’t know its positives. The USA Today article about the ARIS survey supports this hypothesis:
Don't blame secularism for driving up the percentage of Americans who say they have no religion, says Barry Kosmin, co-researcher for the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). "These people aren't secularized. They're not thinking about religion and rejecting it; they're not thinking about it at all," Kosmin says.
There’s also this painful anecdote about the most basic tenant of the Christian faith:
In a nation that has long been mostly Christian, "the challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion," the report concludes… The Rev. Kendall Harmon, theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, blames social mobility. "Mobility means your ideas are more challenged and your family and childhood traditions have less influence, particularly if you are not strongly rooted in them. I see kids today who have no vocabulary of faith, and neither do many of their parents."
Harmon recalls, "A couple came into my office once with a yellow pad of their teenage son's questions. One of them was: 'What is that guy doing hanging up there on the plus sign?'"
This ignorance reminds me of a quote from the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in, and the chances are I don’t believe in that God either. Let me tell you about the God I believe in.”
Let me tell you not just about the God I believe in, but about the church I attend. What I think of when I think of mainline Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians, or of the emerging village, is of people engaged in a dialogue about powers bigger than themselves, powers that are loving and creating. My church does not tell me what to think, but it does give me a community in which I can explore the mysteries and the love of God with other people equally lost along the way. In worship, I encounter and know God, and am able to take that feeling out into the world and apply it to my daily life, lived in God’s commands. All of us are looking for God, whether we know it or not. In today’s society, we like to lead these personal journeys alone, but the fact is there’s always someone smarter than you or me. We can look to religious communities, church councils, and classic theologians for guidance and advice without surrendering our personal control.
So how do we show them the other side of things? How do we cure people’s ignorance and let them understand the choices before them? How can we show them that yes, there is hypocrisy in the churches just as there is outside, but there are also smart people and books that can help you find answers, a message that can help strengthen the world’s ills if you look for it, and worship traditions that can bring you closer to your creator parent?
I’m no expert on congregational growth, but I am drawn to this quote from Megachurch Pastor Rick Warren. Say what you will about his recent quotes on homosexuality and his meddling in internal Episcopal Church affairs; he he does know how to build a church. With a hat tip to author E.J. Dionne, here’s how Pastor Rick founded Saddleback and got the disenchanted interested in church again:
I decided, why don't we be a church for people who hate church? There are plenty of good churches around here. Why don't we have church for people who hate church? And so I went out and for twelve weeks I went door to door, and I knocked on homes for about 12 weeks and just took an opinion poll. I had a survey with me. I just said, "My name is Rick Warren. I'm not here to sell you anything, I'm not here to convert you, I'm not here to witness to you. I just want to ask you three or four questions. Question number one: Are you an active member of a local church – of any kind of religion – synagogue, mosque, whatever?" If they said yes, I said, "Great, God bless you, keep going," and I politely excused myself and went to the next home. When I'd find somebody who'd say, "No, I don't go anywhere," I'd say, "Perfect; you're just the kind of guy I want to talk to. This is great, you don't go anywhere. So let me ask you a question. Why do you think most people don't attend church?" And I just wrote the answers down. I asked, "If you were looking for a church, what kind of things would you look for?" And I'd just list them. "What advice would you give to me as the pastor of a new church? How can I help you?" So they'd say, "I think churches exist for the community; not vice versa," and I'd write that down.
Now the four biggest reasons in my area why people didn't go to church – here's what they were: Number one, they said, "Sermons are boring and they don't relate to my life." So I decided I had to say something on Sunday that would help people on Monday. Number two, they said, "Members are unfriendly to visitors; I feel like it's a clique." Number three, they said, "Most churches seem more interested in your money than you as a person." And number four, they said, "We want quality children's programs for our children."
Now it's interesting to me that out of the four biggest reasons why people said they didn't go to church, none of them were theological. They were all sociological. And I had people say, "Oh, it's not that I don't like God. I like God; I just can't stand church." I go, okay; we'll build a whole new kind of church.
(Picture courtesy Robert Peterson of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Coeur d'Alene.)