Friday, May 15, 2015

And, success means . . .?


      And let the hand-wringing continue!
      I admit, I've been around the block a time or two, so the recent news out of the Pew Research Center was not surprising.  If you've not seen it, the study, released on May 12, 2015, is entitled:  "America’s Changing Religious Landscape Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow".  According to the research, the Christian population in the US declined from 78.4% to 70.6% between 2007 and 2014.  At the same time, the unaffiliated portion of the population grew from 16.1% to 22.8%.  There was also a small percentage increase in non-Christian traditions.  In other words, MOST of those who "left" the Christian fold simply dis-affiliated.  A couple of commentators on this trend (although writing separately from the release of this study) calls these folks the "Dones" -- as in "done" with traditional religion, as semi-distinct from the "Nones", many of whom never affiliated.*
      Well, as historians of religion in America have noted for some time -- probably since the heyday of the post-WW II years, this trend is not new (or confined to Christianity), although the steep decline in less than a decade is a bit unusual.  And many of those historians, from diverse (or no) religious traditions, have tried to make sense of the decline.  For some, it is due to changing demographics -- with new ethnic/religious groups coming to the US, intermarriage has "diluted" religious homogeneity.  For others, it is the "culture wars", and certain traditions' hard-line stance against some social issues, that has "driven" people away.  For still others, the reason for the departure is some religions' focus on their own "stuff" (e.g., building buildings rather than feeding the poor, or padding the pastor's pocket).  Others would point to the battle between religion and science. And for still others, there is a dissatisfaction with a shallow presentation of the faith, i.e., "all glitzy show and no lasting substance".
       All of these reasons have their validity; the scholars who've reasoned them out have done so with good data.  And each of the reasons usually comes with a proposal to counter the decline.  Whether it's more involvement in social justice ministries, or more "new-age" worship, or more "traditional" worship, or "Religion & Science" lecture series -- the religious groups will not go "gentle into that dark night"**.
      I get it; I understand the concern.  And I am certainly not going to weigh in on one side or another. But sometimes I wonder -- at least for some religions, such as Christianity, that have socio-political change as part of their mission -- whether or not "success" has its own downside.  My pondering here stems from the take-over by the State of many, previously, religious institutions (such as hospitals or orphanages) by the state. In other words, the Church succeeded in implementing one of its major agenda items, that is, increasing social care for the sick and the orphans.  The problem was that the success was so great that the responsibility was taken from the Church and assumed by the greater population, a population that had adopted that concern.  The problem for the Church, then, was what to do when THAT reason-for-being was removed.  Another side to the interaction is equally problematic:  when a Religion and the State become so inter-twined, which rules the other, or, which co-opts the other?  We've certainly seen this played out in the history of the West, and we're in the middle of similar negotiations in the Middle East.  The results are rarely pretty.  And many well-meaning, faithful people run away screaming.
       So, many are wringing their theological hands, wondering how to draw the unaffiliated either in or back.  I understand; as I said above, I've been around the block a few times.  I just wonder whether it's time to declare a moratorium on trying new (or old) marketing techniques, and, rather, to go on an extended retreat to get a better handle on why our religious traditions are here in the first place.



*  Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are DONE With Church but Not Their Faith.
** Apologies to Dylan Thomas.

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