It’s no secret that the the American Religious Identification Survey, conducted by researchers at Trinity College of Hartford, Conn, had some interesting, if not troubling, news for U.S. churches. In a culture and age in which numbers take precedence over other indicators, the results of the survey are sending shock waves down the spines of many denominational hierarchies. As is customary, however, the concentration is on solving the numbers problem, rather than taking a good, long look at the causes. That would require collective introspection – not a process at which mainline denominations are adept. As is not uncommon, it is those outside of the fray that often give the most reasoned critique of the situation.
A few significant numerical observations: The number of people calling themselves Christian is 76 percent, down 10 percentage points since 1990. Thirty percent of married couples did not have a religious ceremony. More than one in four Americans do not expect a religious funeral. While, in gross numbers, there are approximately 22 million more Christians now than in 1990, the trend is clear. In 1990, about 14 million (8.2%) of us claimed “no religion”. Last year, 34 million or 15% did.
In his article, “Wake up call for Organized Religion“, Leonard Pitts Jr has some interesting insights:
Some have suggested our loss of faith is due to increased diversity, mobility and immigration. I’m sure there’s something to that, but I tend to think the most important cause is simpler: Religion has become an ugly thing.
What is the cumulative effect upon outside observers of [evangelists] living like lords on the largess of the poor … pornography addiction … multiplied by the church that kicked out some members because they voted Democrat … caterwauling on courthouse steps as a rock bearing the Ten Commandments was removed, multiplied by the square root of Catholic priests preying on little boys while the church looked on and did nothing … plus the ongoing demonization of gay men and lesbians, divided by all those ”traditional values” coalitions and ”family values” councils that try to bully public schools into becoming worship houses, with morning prayers and science lessons from the book of Genesis? Then subtract selflessness, service, sacrifice, holiness and hope.
Who can be surprised if the sheer absurdity, fundamentalist cruelty and ungodly hypocrisy that have characterized so much ”religion” in the last 30 years have driven people away? If all I knew of God was what I had seen in the headlines, I would not be eager to make [God’s] acquaintance. I am thankful I know more. Including that God and religion are not synonymous.
I have no doubt these observations make just about every church-attending Christian cringe and bristle, but perhaps they should. Ninety-nine percent of us have nothing directly to do with the ugliness that has surrounded our church – nothing directly to do with it, but a great deal indirectly.
We could get high and mighty and proclaim that it is a distinct minority that has abused religious power – that it is the judgmentalism of the extreme right that gives us a bad name – or even that the church is being demonized by an apostate, Christian-hating, left-wing press that would like to see nothing more than the destruction of the church. We could, but we would be deluding ourselves as well as misleading the children of God. I, for one, am not ready for that millstone necklace.
The truth is that the bulk of Christians have a voice, but choose not to use it. Those at the extremes use the airwaves to create images of Christians that are wholly inaccurate, but that stick in people’s minds. Those images, combined with most churches being adept at petty squabbling and ill-prepared and informed at resolving conflict, paint a picture of the church that looks remarkably like the rest of the world. The church as “Enron in robes” when it all about money, or like the ostrich with its head in the sand when it comes to issues of sexual indiscretion and internal strife, is just mimicry of business and political realms. With each instance, there is a large number of Christians on either side of the liberal/conservative barricade that shake their heads and lament, but that say nothing. They do not write voluminous letters to the editors, send emails to their denominational hierarchies to issue rebuttals, or even speak out in church, with the possible exception of the parking lot.
It is time that the church and church-goers take long, hard looks at themselves and the institutions to which they profess allegiance and decide if this is the time for reform. The church needs renewal that has nothing to do with theology – while there is but one God, there is not one, God-ordained way of believing and worshipping – and having everything to do with ethics and conduct. The world is tired of looking at itself in all its failings, and needs a vision of change and respite – not yet other images of inaction, uncaring, lack of courage and political pandering.
Christians unite! Get off your separatist soap-boxes and truly contend for the faith. Examine what you truly believe, engage in dialogue and seek resolution and, above all else, strive to live a life worthy of Christ’s ministry, advocacy, justice-seeking, death and resurrection. There are more of us than those who give us a bad name but, until we find a voice and use it, we will relegate ourselves to loosing relevance and death.