April 16, 2021

What Happens After Religious Decline?

If you are interested in the state of religion in America and have not yet read the recent FiveThirtyEight piece from Perry Bacon Jr. and Ryan Burge, it is worth your time to do so. Titled, "It’s Not Just Young White Liberals Who Are Leaving Religion" the article takes a look at data on the decline in religious affiliation in the States. What stands out, to me, is that most of this decline is experienced by two groups:
"There are about as many evangelicals (22 percent of American adults), Jewish Americans (2 percent), Black Protestants (6 percent) and members of smaller religions in the U.S. like Islam and Hinduism (6 percent) as there were a decade ago, according to GSS data. It’s really two groups in particular that are declining: mainline Protestants (think Episcopalians or Methodists) and Catholics."
For the last 12 years I have worked within mainline protestant denominations. For three years I was on staff of a Presbyterian congregation (PCUSA) and for the last nine years I have worked in middle judicatory offices of the Episcopal Church. Before that I periodically consulted mainline judicatories and congregations. I care about the state of these institutions and particularly the Episcopal Church of which I am member. Of course, it concerns me to see that traditions such as ours bears the brunt of religious decline but I am not anxious about it.

As scholars of Christian history Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge have written, "Secularization is a self-limiting process that leads not to irreligion, but to revival." While I am unanxious about religious decline I do not think we can rest on our laurels and wait for revival. As Stark has often pointed out in his study of Christian movements throughout history, decline merely provides space for new forms of religious life—not the absence of religious life. The future of religiosity in America rests on those that are ready to meet the culture in this moment.

There is much to be said about why mainline denominations have not risen to the occasion but there is one that stands out to me which is highlighted by this statement from Bacon and Burge:
"[...] unlike the civil rights movements of the 1950s and ’60s, Black Lives Matter didn’t emerge from Black Christian churches and is not principally led by Black pastors. Part of the story there is that some activists involved in BLM view Black churches as too conservative, particularly in terms of not being inclusive enough of women and LGBTQ people. But another part of the story is simply that the Black Lives Matter movement was largely started by Black people under age 50. Many Black Americans under 50, like their non-Black counterparts, are disengaged from religion. About a third of Black Millennials are religiously unaffiliated, compared to 11 percent of Black Baby Boomers, according to Pew."
This paragraph brought to mind an experience I had several years ago. Sitting in a room with leaders from various historic Black congregations, concern that young people were no longer coming to church was expressed by nearly everyone. A non-member of this group of leaders spoke up stating that they knew locals associated with Black Lives Matter and would gladly make introductions. Maybe there was something to be learned from those capturing the passion of young people. Maybe partnerships could be shaped. Introductions were made. BLM leaders were eager to meet but the interest was not reciprocated. Nothing came of the introductions. This encounter demonstrates a common challenge for mainline congregations and their leaders:

We bemoan decline while unwilling to show interest in those that we wish would fill our pews.

Our utilitarian relationship to those in our surrounding communities is too often more apparent to those outside our churches than it is to us. This often results in indifference more than animosity. Bacon and Burge identify a diverse group of those who do not affiliate with religious institutions as the "nothing in particular" bloc. In other words, a number of those who do not affiliate with Christian institutions are simply ambivalent about the Church—reciprocating the very ambivalence we collectively demonstrated first.

Samuel Perry tweeted something related to this a few months ago. Citing data from 1974 to 2018 available through The General Social Survey  he wrote, "Among non-Christian Americans, the % who don't trust religious leaders is increasing as the % who do is declining." In other words, as Christian leaders are associated with Christian institutions, those institutions are increasingly viewed as untrustworthy by a growing percentage of the population. Tie this together with the FiveThirtyEight article and it would seem as though the rest just don't care!

By and large, we have misunderstood the Great Commandment. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says that all of the law and prophets hinges on God's command to love God with every fiber of our being and to love our neighbor. When mainline Christians do emphasize evangelism, we tend to be consumed with getting our neighbor to love us rather than the other way around. Most of our tactics (from mainline to evangelical) could be described as actions shaped around convincing our neighbor to have an interest in us rather than manifesting an genuine curiosity about the lives of those outside our congregations. Each of us knows what this feels like when this happens on a personal level; it is unattractive.

What does it look like to love someone who finds you either untrustworthy or who is ambivalent about your affection?

Most of us would do well to ponder on this question, listing out the actions one would have to take. Confession. Time. Presence. Actions that match words. Etc. We know what this would look like on a personal level, the micro-scale. What does it look like on a macro-scale when applied to the relationship between our congregations and those that live, work, and play within the communities we supposedly serve? Increasingly, we are speaking of those that either find us untrustworthy or don't care. If Jesus has told us that love of neighbor is one of the most central directives … if this is the culture we live in … what does this ask of us?

If we hope to change the decline we have experienced, we need to demonstrate a genuine concern for our neighbor rather than trying to convince them to have an interest in us. The data has shown us that the latter has proven fruitless. This cannot be a program or project but genuine interest. As the saying goes, mission moves at the speed of relationships.

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