Religious Identity, Religious Community: More Thoughts on the Pew Study and the Memorial to the Church

I’ve been thinking a great deal about my post last week and the conversations around both the Memorial to the Church and the Pew Survey. We’re in uncharted territory as the Episcopal Church (and Mainline Protestantism) collapse. All sorts of people from all over the theological spectrum will offer analyses of the reasons for this collapse but it will require historical distance to gain the necessary perspective from which to judge what happened and why. At the same time, with the rise of the percentage of people who no longer identify with particular denominations or traditions, one of the things the Pew Survey has made clear is that Americans are creating new ways of being religious. A number of commentators have made this case, among them Kaya Oakes and Peter Manseau. Something Oakes wrote is especially pertinent:

The new Pew Survey should not be giving people who are creating their own religions and communities something to think about. They’ve already thought about the role religions should play in their lives.

Manseau puts it like this:

Religion, however, is not a zero sum game. Just as any individual’s life might include periods of greater and lesser religious interest, every tradition is home to remarkable diversity of belief and practice. Church pews may hold nonbelievers; a chanter of mantras may still recall the bat mitzvah prayers of her youth. To claim one religious identity is not necessarily to forsake all others, no matter what a pollster’s multiple choice options might imply.

It is this development, individual creativity in response to America’s religious marketplace, that I consider the greatest challenge to those who want to create (or restructure) Christian community on the other side of Christianity’s collapse. With multiple commitments and engagements, people’s attention, interests, and desires have multiple claims on them—and each of those claims may be important and life-giving. I doubt very much that a Christian perspective that remains open to culture (in the Niebuhrian sense) can hope to claim the sole allegiance of many people in today’s world.

The problem is that we have few models on which to draw as we think about what Christian community (either local or national) might look like on the other side. Obviously, fundamentalism is a no-go and even the Anabaptist or Neo-Anabaptist models seem to draw too sharp a line between the community and “the world.” Over on the Catholic/Orthodox conservative side, there’s been considerable talk of adapting monasticism for the present moment. Rod Dreher calls it The Benedict Option:

This is the gist of the Benedict Option: creating the conditions and habits necessary for our faith to live on in an anti-Christian society in which the dominant culture is so overpowering. Going along to get along is not going to suffice. How do we do this? I don’t think there is one set way.

While such alternatives may be attractive to some, there must be other options. In essence, I’m asking what open and inclusive Christian community might look like in a post-Christian culture. I suspect we’re already seeing it coming into existence in congregations across America, with a core of significantly committed members and wider circles of people with lower levels of commitment and engagement. The congregational development gurus are all about increasing the engagement and commitment level of the people in those wider circles. But what would happen if we were to see this pattern as evidence of people fashioning their own religious identities rather than their lack of commitment to our community (congregation) and their resistance to accepting the identity we wish to impose on them? We would have to engage them on their terms, listen to their questions and needs, and respond to them where they are, rather than set preconditions on their involvement.

I suspect this is why I had such a negative response to the Memorial. While its calls to prayer, bible study, and evangelism are all laudable, the language it uses often sounds more like a manifesto for a nineteenth century missionary movement than a strategy for engaging the world in which we live. The movement in the document, for all the talk of decentralization, networks, and local initiative, is from center to periphery: “laborers into the harvest,” “learn to follow Jesus into all of our neighborhoods.” Do people in those neighborhoods understand themselves as fields readied to be harvested—commodities to be exploited, if not as pledging units, then as data points?

How do we proclaim a gospel that demands ultimate allegiance to people who cannot give their ultimate allegiance, who may not even be able to spare an hour a week? How do we share the Good News with people who want it, but on their terms, not ours? Do we abandon them and form our little communities, whether neo-Anabaptist or neo-Monastic, or do we continue to engage them and risk that in our encounters and life with them, we are transformed as they are?

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The latest on the “spiritual but not religious”

Mark Oppenheimer in today’s New York times:

At the very least, we might conclude that “spiritual but not religious” isn’t necessarily vague or wishy-washy. It’s not nothing, although it may risk being everything.

Little new here, although Oppenheimer uses Courtney Bender’s and Linda Mercadante’s work to stress that the “nones” (as they’re often called) can be both communal in orientation and theologically sophisticated.

So, who’s going to church?

A Pew Survey entitled “I know what you did last Sunday”
got a lot of attention last week. In separate telephone and on-line polling, the survey shows that more people claim to attend religious services when asked by a person (36%) than online (31%).
Mark Silk looks more closely at the numbers. First, he points out that the Pew survey seems to over-report attendance. A number of studies in the 1990s that used polling, self-reporting, and actual counting of people in the seats, showed actual attendance to be in the 20s. In other words, unless attendance has increased in the last twenty years, Pew is still getting results that suggest people exaggerate their religious involvement.

Second, Silk makes another very interesting observation. The same gap between phone and online responses exists for atheists, agnostics, and nones that exists for religious people. That is to say, they feel guilty about not attending services and over-report their involvement when responding to a telephone interview.

Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is this: “more respondents told the telephone interviewers that they had no religion than said so online.”

His conclusion:

What it suggests it that, as of today, Americans believe there is nothing socially undesirable about saying you don’t have a religion. To the contrary, we may be entering an era when identifying oneself as having a religion is less desirable than identifying oneself as belonging to one. And that’s true even as it remains socially desirable to go to church and believe in God.

In other words, there are more people out there there who are Catholics and Southern Baptists and Episcopalians than are prepared to admit it to someone on the telephone.

Interesting indeed!

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.

Not all atheists are created equal

Salon reports on a new study that reveals the complexity within the general grouping of “atheists and non-believers.” Most interesting for church folk is this:

6. Ritual Atheist/Agnostic. While you might think the anti-theist is the non-believer type that scares Christians the most, it turns out that it may very well be the Ritual Atheist/Agnostic. This group, making up 12.5 percent of atheists, doesn’t really believe in the supernatural, but they do believe in the community aspects of their religious tradition enough to continue participating. We’re not just talking about atheists who happen to have a Christmas tree, but who tend to align themselves with a religious tradition even while professing no belief. “Such participation may be related to an ethnic identity (e.g. Jewish),” explain researchers, “or the perceived utility of such practices in making the individual a better person.”

Huffington Post also reports on the study. The study itself can be found here.

Its description of the “Ritual Atheist/Agnostic” includes this observation:

The Ritual Atheist/Agnostic individual perceives ceremonies and rituals as producing personal meaning within life. This meaning can be an artistic or cultural appreciation of human systems of meaning while knowing there is no higher reality other than the observable reality of the mundane world. In some cases, these individuals may identify strongly with religious traditions as a matter of cultural identity and even take an active participation in religious rituals.

This is hardly a new phenomenon but it’s still worth pondering the significance of it for matters like church growth and congregational development, not to mention evangelism.

Three Spiritual Journeys of Millennials

from the Barna Group

David Kinnaman has this to say:

one of the key insights emerging from the tour was that “nomads, prodigals and exiles share something in common: being somewhere other than home. One of the characteristics of Millennial life has become the image of the traveller. They want to wander the world, both in real life and in digital ways. They want to feel untethered. There is a trend among young adults of delaying the pressures of adult life as long as possible; they want to embrace a lifestyle of risk, exploration and unscripted moments. At the same time, they want to be loyal to their peers. The generation has come to appreciate and take identity from a spiritual version of life on the road. In other words, it is a generation that is spiritually homeless.

“This transience stands in contrast to the staid, predictable, and often overprotective experience that most churches seem to offer. The gap is simple: Millennials are a generation that craves spontaneity, participation, adventure and clan-like relationships, but what they often find in churches are featureless programs and moralistic content. Leaders who hope to alter the spiritual journeys of today’s Millennials need to embrace something of a ‘reverse mentoring’ mindset, allowing the next generation to help lead alongside established leaders. Millennials need to find spiritual rootedness, but that’s not simply to preserve old ways of doing church.

The backlash of institutions (and their spokespeople) against “Spiritual but not Religious”

Another week, another study. There are some remarkable numbers here. Among those aged 18-24, 32% prefer no religion; of those between the ages of 25 and 34, 29% claim “no religion;” Among those 35-44, only 19%. But underneath those headlines lies  a more complex reality. They may have no religious affiliation but the vast majority of Americans continue to express belief in God or belief in a higher power. The percentage of those identifying as atheist (3.1%) or agnost (5.6%) remains very small.

This study, as others before it, makes clear that while institutional affiliation may be falling dramatically, religious belief and practice are not declining significantly.

Gary Laderman, chair of the Religion Department at Emory University and scholar of American Religion, points out that the rise of the “nones” means the study of Religion in America is more interesting than ever. He gives several reasons for the rise, one of them is:

Finally, the rise of the “nones” surely suggests it is the end of religion as we know it. Forget churches; forget priests and pastors; forget the Bible; forget organized religion generally. What is sacred are no longer conventional objects like a cross, a singular religious identity like being a Methodist, nor activities like going to church or prayer. Instead, the religious worlds in the contemporary and future United States are robust and capacious, providing an abundance of spiritual possibilities found in unexpected places like drum circles and meditation exercises, sports events and other expressions from popular culture. It is a brave new world for religious Americans who are increasingly unhinged from traditional authorities and institutions.

Elizabeth Drescher is studying the prayer practices of the “nones” and has some pointed questions about prayer divorced from religious traditions and communities.

I’ve blogged about Lillian Daniel’s views before. Her recent book continues to garner interest. I’m not exactly sure who she’s writing for, to reassure those of us who are caretakers of traditional religious institutions are doing valuable work? Is she trying to convince the SBNR folks that their efforts to make meaning in their life are of little value? At least she doesn’t harangue them quite like Rabbi David Wolpe.

One one level, all this consternation from religious institutions and their representatives about the nones reminds me of the complaints throughout history of pastors, theologians, bishops, and other insiders about the behavior of their flocks. In the fourth century, Ambrose worried that the faithful were going out of the city to martyrs’ shrines and not attending his sermons. In the Middle Ages, preachers and priests complained that people didn’t pay attention to sermons or came only when they heard the sanctus bell that indicated the moment of the consecration of the host. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Protestant preachers also complained that attendance at services was poor and devotion languished. Had you asked those who were criticized for their lukewarm faith and behavior, I’ve no doubt they would have responded by saying they were good Christians. They just weren’t the sort of Christians their leaders wanted them to be.

The fact of the matter is that throughout the history of Christianity, indeed, throughout the history of religion, there has been a disconnect between what institutions and sacred experts wanted in terms of behavior (and doctrinal purity) of their communities, and what ordinary men and women actually did religiously, and how they understood and appropriated what they did. What we are seeing is not so much a decline in religious practice or belief, but rather a decline in the understanding that religious practice and belief must be tied to religious institutions. They are free of the religious expectations imposed on them from above.

The question, then, is not how to get people back into the pews, but rather, how can we connect with people who no longer automatically see us as valuable experts on religion or even as valuable spiritual guides? How can we encounter them where they are, invite them to ask their questions, encourage them to enter more deeply into the rich spiritual traditions of Christianity, but at the same time recognize that they may never join the Altar Guild. It’s likely, however, that if we have concrete outreach opportunities for them to engage, they will work side by side with us. To succeed with the nones may not mean getting them to join our churches. Instead, it may mean recognizing the legitimacy of their spiritual journeys and engaging them there, rather than trying to force them to engage us on our terms.

The Changing Sea Project is exploring the spirituality of emerging adults and their relationship with religious institutions. More on the spirituality and religious practices of “emerging adults:”

This group of emergent adults says they feel close to God. They adapt religious traditions according to their own individual needs and desires. But religion has high salience for them. They really care
about the meaning of life and other deep questions. Religious attendance is medium, with some regular attending and others not. They engage in service to others. It’s a religiosity that would not exclude attendance or personal prayer.

And another cautionary note: Young philanthropists want to support causes not institutions:

They have judged previous generations to be largely motivated by recognition for their giving and want little part of it. They want to see societal change through the causes they support; they could care less about the named scholarship fund or the plaque on the wall. Christian institutions making appeals to younger donors need to show how their work is part of the unfolding shalom of God for all of creation.

And

young donors want to be engaged in the work of a cause or institution itself. As the study notes, this is a generation that grew up volunteering and believes that investing time as much as money is essential. But note — this on-the-ground service is also another way that they will assess impact over rhetoric.