Organized Religion: Decline, Opportunity, and Hope

September 12th, 2012
Is the church experiencing a bear market?

“The Bear Market in GOD”

Joe Weisenthal, deputy editor of the Business Insider website, put this provocative title on a graph that showed a dramatic downwardtrending line. Taken from the US Department of Commerce Census Bureau, the graph indicated that construction spending on religious institutions, which had been near $9 billion in 2002, had fallen to below $4 billion in 2012. Weisenthal’s commentary was brief: “Off the cliff.”

Church buildings are a crude measure of the state of American religion. The economy for all kinds of construction has taken a hit with the recent global recession. But the trend illustrated by the graph began before the recession, and it reflects something that many people are feeling intuitively: Something is changing in the relationship we have to our religious institutions and perhaps even to God. One visible sign of this change may be the decline in church construction projects, but there are others as well. Is the United States, with one of the Western world’s highest rates of religious belief, turning away from organized religion? What is happening, and what does it say for churches?

Declining Confidence in Religious Institutions

A more direct measure of the religious climate can be found in a poll released by the Gallup organization in July. This study revealed that the percentage of Americans who expressed a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the church or organized religion had fallen to a record low of just 44 percent. Protestants recorded a slightly higher level of confidence (56 percent) than the overall figure, but the study confirmed a trend that has been taking place since the 1970’s. Institutions of all kinds, from banks to schools to television news, have experienced an erosion of public confidence; and religious bodies are not immune. Organized religion still ranked highly (fourth) relative to the 15 other institutions that were tested, but the 44 percent figure was far below the 68 percent who expressed confidence in religious institutions in 1975.

Religious institutions may be losing public support, but the same survey showed that religion itself is still holding on in America. Reporting on the data, Lydia Saad, senior editor at Gallup, observed, “The decline in confidence does not necessarily indicate a decline in Americans’ personal attachment to religion. The percentage of Americans saying religion is very important in their lives has held fairly steady since the mid-1970s, after dropping sharply from 1952 levels.”

A murkier picture on religious belief emerged from a recent international survey on faith and atheism. Released by WIN-Gallup International, the poll tracked religiosity in 57 countries around the world, asking participants “if they considered themselves to be religious, not religious, or an atheist.” This poll found that there has been a general decline in global religiosity since 2005, and the United States was one of the top ten countries experiencing a “notable decline.” As reported in the Huffington Post, “the number of people in the U.S. who self-identify as religious dropped 13 points to 60 percent. In addition, 5 percent of Americans declared themselves atheists, an increase of 4 points since 2005.”

Five Major Events

So what’s behind these trends that mark what author Diana Butler Bass has called the “Great Religious Recession”? In her new book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Butler Bass outlines “five major events” in the first decade of the 21st century that “revealed the ugly side of organized religion, challenging even the faithful to wonder if defending religion is worth the effort”:

1. The September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, DC. As blame for the events turned to religious fanaticism, Butler Bass says that religion as a whole was tarred with being a repressive and regressive influence in the world. “It became hard to discriminate between healthy, life-giving religion and violent, life-ending religion, inspiring journalist Christopher Hitchens to write: ‘People of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments [art, literature, philosophy, ethics, and science].’”

2. The Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal in 2002 and in the years following in which news reports and court cases revealed the failure of church leaders to confront sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests.

3. Protestant conflicts over homosexuality in 2003, particularly in the Episcopal Church as Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, was elected bishop. Butler Bass credits the intensity of the fight in that denomination and in other mainline denominations with underscoring a “new narrative––Christianity is mean, bigoted, and makes people behave badly.”

4. The convergence of faith and politics, as evidenced in the role of religious groups in the 2004 presidential elections. According to Butler Bass, people outside the church, particularly young people, came to see religious institutions as overly politicized.

5. The Great Religious Recession, which paralleled the economic recession beginning around 2007. Butler Bass quotes sociologist Mark Chaves, who sees “if not a connection between the economic loss of confidence and a religious one, then the same magnitude of institutional failure in the two realms, representing ‘real change,’ not just trend fluctuation.”

A Fourth Great Awakening?

External events like these may be shifting the landscape and altering the outlook for religious institutions as they have traditionally been organized, but there are opportunities in this new environment as well. Butler Bass believes the dislocation and disillusionment that Americans have been experiencing are evidence that we may be entering another of the historical realignments that have marked US religious life. She suggests we may be in the midst of a “Fourth Great Awakening” that began in the 1960’s. It is, she says, “a time of cultural revitalization and reorientation rather than a time of religious apocalypse.”

An awakening happens when we come face-to-face with the limitations of our current structures and begin to reorganize in new ways. This process may be painful, especially for institutions; but it reveals the persistence of faith and the emergence of something genuinely new. In a recent article, Bill Wilson, president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, acknowledged that “the vast majority of American Protestant congregations that have been in existence more than 40 years [are] facing a very uncertain future.” But churches that can honestly face what’s happening in the culture around us and embrace the longing for a new day with a willingness to change may yet experience awakening.

Spiritual and Religious

One way in which both the dissatisfaction and the longing show up in our contemporary culture is in the language of “spirituality.” People who support religious institutions often express dislike for spirituality since it suggests a kind of “do-it-yourself” approach to God that has little use for the structures that undergird communal faith. Butler Bass sees more promise in the word, however. “To say that one is ‘spiritual but not religious’ or ‘spiritual and religious’ is often a way of saying, ‘I am dissatisfied with the way things are, and I want to find a new way of connecting with God, my neighbor, and my own life.’ It might not be a thoughtless mantra at all—in many cases, it may well be a considered commentary of religious institutions, doctrine, and piety.”

Churches that can hear the desire behind the language of this new cultural moment may approach the future with less anxiety. After all, the narrative of this environment may not be about the failure of religious institutions but instead the search for God’s living Word. This is also the desire of the church—to be connected to that living Word. Perhaps the church can listen to and accompany these spiritual seekers and reclaim a mission that is less about institutional survival and more about the flourishing of the reign of God.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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