The rose-colored glasses of progressive Christians

Earlier this week, my twitter and facebook feeds were awash with likes, shares, and retweets of an article in which the author urged mainline churches (especially, presumably, Episcopalians) not to abandon traditional forms of worship to accommodate young adults. She urged us to change wisely.

Towards the end of the week, there was a similar response to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute that claims there are more religious progressives (23%) among the millennial generation than religious conservatives (17%, with 22% unaffiliated). Of those aged 67-88, only 12% are progressive while 47% are conservative.

In the midst of a dominant narrative of long-term decline among mainline Christianity, such stories reassure us that we’re on the right track. We don’t have to do anything about our liturgy or worship to adapt to the tastes of a changing culture. In fact, the culture is changing in our direction–if the trend continues, in a few decades there will be more progressive Christians than conservative Christians!

But a closer look at the numbers tells a different story. Among those classified in the survey as “religious progressives” are people “who are unaffiliated with a religious tradition but claim religion is at least somewhat important in their lives” (18% of the overall total) as well as non-Christians (13%). Both of the latter are no doubt going to continue to grow in the coming decades as the number of affiliated Christians continues to drop. If the designers of the survey had divided things up a little differently and defined the religiously unaffiliated as non-religious, the percentages would have been quite different.

And the same is true of the lovely piece proclaiming the appeal of traditional liturgy to young adults. For every article that makes such claims, there are probably a thousand or ten thousand stories of young people who find our liturgy and institutional life stultifying and meaningless. And Dilley herself pointed to what is a distinct possibility:

Even so, your church (and your denomination) might die. My generation and those following might take it apart, brick by brick, absence by absence.

Grasping at straws isn’t the answer. Facing the future and creatively responding to its possibilities and challenges, is.

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