Church for the Unaffiliated

October 17th, 2012

The American religious landscape is experiencing some fundamental changes. The recent Pew Report highlights findings that question many of the assumptions that previous religious leaders and scholars have had about the American people. Pew points out that the rate of the unaffiliated is rising, and for those under thirty, it reaches to a third of this younger generation. And even more telling is that this group, who claim no religious affiliation, often remain believers in God and spiritual in various ways, but they are not seeking a religion; they are happy with what they have.

This upends scholarship of the 1980’s and 1990’s, in which the younger generation was portrayed as “seekers”, and many growing churches were called “seeker-friendly.” What if today, no one is seeking? And even more pointedly, what if people are not buying what churches and other religions are trying to sell? And how will religious leaders deal with the fact that there are fewer potential members even interested in religion?

Has something fundamentally changed in how Americans do faith? Is there a shift in American religion?

In Mark Chaves’s American Religion: Contemporary Trends (Princeton 2011), Chaves highlights the continuities of American religion but it is the discontinuities that stand out. Chaves, like the Pew Report, shows that in 1957 only three percent of Americans would mark “no religion” in surveys, today, 17 percent make the claim. More to the point, in 1924, 91 percent of Americans agreed that Christianity was the only true religion, and today only 41 percent make the same claim. Even more striking is that today three quarters of Americans say that another religion (besides their own) can offer a true way to God. So, while a third of Americans are born again, nearly one in five claim no religion, and the majority accepts a pluralist vision of religion in America. Today, to not believe is a live option. And when one does believe, there is much less certainty that one’s belief is the only one or the right one.

We truly live in an open religious market; where in many regions of the country there is no expectation of religious affiliation, of attending and becoming members in religious institutions. In my own region, the Pacific Northwest, there is, in fact, a kind of reverse pressure: Why would you attend church or synagogue? And if you do there is little prestige or status related to it, in fact, to some degree one must defend being religious and being committed to a religious organization. Most youth sports and academic programs now regularly schedule practices and events on Sunday mornings.

So where does that leave religious leaders in the country? In light of my research on American religion and my recent book on Rob Bell and a New American Christianity, I have three observations:

1. You Can't Be Boring

Religious leaders have very little tradition in families and communities to bank on for potential membership. In a sense, a religious leader must produce a religious product that creates a world and a story that can energize a community toward a goal and purpose that people would not normally seek. This makes the task of the religious leaders incredibly demanding and daunting. There has to be a very good reason to go to church or synagogue. The quality of what is offered must be at least as good and as engaging as what other secular and sometimes other spiritual products might be offering. Some find this too hard.

But in the case of Rob Bell, who created the Mars Hill Church in 1999, Bell took it for granted that no one would come to church unless he made it so engaging and so relevant to their lives that there was no other place that they would rather be. In a period of a year and a half, he went from a 1,000 in attendance to 10,000 coming to three services on Sundays. Bell put on a show, the energy was contagious and people wanted to come. So, instead of complaining about how no one is faithful, Bell embraced it and created a compelling presentation and message that people sought out.

2. Go Beyond Liberal and Conservative

The old culture wars between conservatives and liberals are not only dead but boring. Because of the saturation of higher education, conservatives who claim a literal belief in scripture, and that the Bible is somehow a kind of history book and or a science text book simply holds little water for more and more people. And this is particularly true for those in the younger generation; an inerrant Bible is no longer plausible. Nonetheless, the moral codes and values of many conservative churches still do make sense; many find faithfulness and a strong family life important. But even here, younger evangelicals are more accepting of their gay peers. At the same time, the boilerplate liberalism that claims that religion is always and only about social justice, gay rights, and marriage equality, simply falls flat. Liberal religionists who claim that miracles don’t happen and that God no longer speaks to them, is equally as narrow in its own way.

What I found in Bell is a kind transcending of these hard boundaries and one-dimensional universes. Bell holds up a vision of family values, faithfulness, and even moral purity that was attractive; but what he thought really mattered was what Christians did with the gospel both in compassionate service to the poor and marginalized and in care for one another. For him, dogmas and claims of inerrancy turned the “flesh of the gospel back into words," when the gospel and the preacher’s task is to “turn the word into flesh.” But Bell was no liberal avatar or cold rationalist. Bell believes that God is bigger than our labels and concepts that construct for him. God can heal; God can speak; God’s love will win in the end. And finally, for Bell, and this I found this to be his greatest gift, a style biblical preaching can make the Word of God en-fleshed for its hearers. For Bell, the story of scripture comes alive in his preaching in ways that moved his church to love one another, to spend millions on AIDS prevention and building thousands of wells for water in Africa.

3. Earn People's Attention

Here is the message: No longer is there a safety net for religious leaders. Success will not given to them on a platter. They must make their religion matter. They must make it engaging. They must make it plausible. They must earn their congregations. And perhaps this is a good thing.

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