by Pastor Doug Kings
Just when I thought everybody had said their piece on the matter, AP (the Associated Press) recently published a mega online report about the rise of the nonreligious around the world. Titled The Nones, it looks at the growing disaffection with organized religion by people in the US plus seven international locations. Doing so, it expands beyond Christianity to other religions, including Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and those of east Asia.
With this expanded scope, what becomes obvious is that it is religion itself that has become a problem, rather than any particular beliefs. Not surprisingly, this distancing from religion is most common among those living a modern Western lifestyle, now possible around the world.
What is also common is people continuing to follow various religious practices, even as they profess little or no belief in religious teachings. These include saying traditional prayers or performing rituals at home, visiting temples or shrines, or attending worship for major festivals. People typically explain such behavior as maintaining connections with family and community or wanting times and places of peace and transcendence. Such responses are often heard from those nominally or formerly Christian who identify as being “spiritual, not religious”, or SNRs.
The AP’s report underlines what has been obvious for some time now. The rise of the Nones and SNRs is not an aberration or a temporary bump in the road. Participation in traditional religion is shrinking nearly everywhere. This is the new reality and a sobering one, especially for those involved in organized religion, like me and most of you reading this.
As I said Sunday, during my ministry my mailbox has been swamped with ideas and programs for reviving churches. Denominations have launched many such projects. Congregations have repainted and repaved, added programs and facilities, gone online and multicultural, added worship times and styles, hired and fired pastors all with hope of attracting, or at least not losing, more people. But in my 40 years, I’ve not seen any of this make a difference.
The perspective of time: When I was in seminary, Robert Schuller came to give a guest lecture. It was a Daniel-in-the-lion’s-den moment. Schuller, founding pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, was the acknowledged prophet of the, then new, megachurch phenomenon. He led a congregation of thousands and his “Hour of Power” TV show had a worldwide audience in the millions. Despite a less than welcoming audience of skeptical Lutherans, Schuller held his own.
Schuller is now deceased, but before his death his congregation crashed and burned and is now a fading memory. Its spectacular glass-encased, Philip Johnson designed building was sold to the Roman Catholic church and is now the cathedral of its Orange County diocese.
But Schuller was invited to my seminary because back then even stodgy Lutherans suspected his way might indeed be the way to church revival. Shortly after its founding, the ELCA even tried a megachurch mission-start in southern California. It was a disaster and soon shut down. The Lutheran leopard’s spots are not so easily changed.
Yet congregations still look down the street and longingly see the full parking lot at Happy Clappy Community Church. “We need to do what they’re doing,” church members say. Some churches try and the results I have seen have been painful. Hopefully I’ll never hear another “praise band” of aging baby boomers reliving their teen garage band days.
As you’re probably aware, a central theme of contemporary spirituality is “living in the now.” The book that first drew attention to Eckhart Tolle was The Power of Now. The idea is an expansion Jesus’ famous “lilies of the field” teaching from the Sermon on the Mount and can be found in most religious traditions. A corollary principle is that of “nonresistance” and the peace that comes with acceptance of things as they are.
Such an approach to life is often dismissed as naïve or pollyannish but this is a misunderstanding. Of course, we always have the freedom and sometimes the responsibility to respond to events. The “power of now” is to recognize, however, that the setting of our life is largely beyond our control and simply “what is.” Pining for a remembered past or longing for an imaginary future only distracts us from what is right in front of us.
I believe that denominations and congregations need to learn the practice of living in the now. Churches need to be who they are and accept the consequences. The reality is that fewer and fewer people are interested in belonging to a church. Thousands of congregations have closed in the past few decades and more will follow. Churches turning themselves into pretzels with programmatic, organizational, musical, liturgical, staff, and other changes just leads to frustration.
The winnowing fork is a popular image of Old Testament prophets and of John the Baptist. In churches today, there seems to be a lot of chaff being burned. But there is still grain to be harvested. How do we tell the difference? While likely discomforting or even painful, self-examination is what churches need to be doing to live honestly in the now.
Why are we here? What draws us together? What kind of things push people away? What are we doing out of habit or nostalgia? Today in the church there can be no unaskable questions or inappropriate topics. Everything needs to be on the table.
Traditional religion will continue to decline but it will not disappear. It will transform, although perhaps into something unrecognizable to those from its past. Human needs have not disappeared. Among the Nones and SNRs we still hear of the search for community and transcendence, for connection with people and connection with the Reality which is our source and the ground of our being, what religion has called God. But they are also saying that for them, religion is failing on both counts.
I continue to return to Jesus’ stated purpose in John: “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” Over the centuries, the church has been about lots of things besides that. But abundant living is a goal everyone can get behind.
Blessings in your life and ministry.