American churches have been languishing in an "attendance recession." Fewer Americans go to church. Now, from the Pew Research Center, comes word that Americans who identify with a specific religion declined six percent in the past seven years. Belief in God, praying daily and religious service attendance have dropped since 2007.
Curiously, there has been an increase in those who said religion was "very important" -- defined as weekly reading of Scripture, participating in a small group and regularly talking about their faith. Pew's research shows that more than 6 in 10 religiously unaffiliated Americans still believe in God and 1 in 5 pray daily. As Martin Marty, University of Chicago historian, put it years ago, contemporary Americans are "believers but not joiners." Pew has now documented a growing "deinstitutionalization" of religion in general and Christianity in particular.
I'm a thoroughly institutionalized, liberal, mainline Protestant leader - United Methodist. Be warned - I'm a prejudiced observer of American religious life and the world's judgment upon my church.
While the reasons for church decline are many, a major reason is: too many churches have not taken care of business.
Over the past few decades a score of sociologists of religion like Wade Clark Roof, Penny Marler, and Donald Miller have noted that "mainline" (now sidelined), "liberal" (or, as it now prefers to be called, "progressive") churches decline because they neglect the intellectual purposes of the Christian faith. Churches are in the business of meaning-making and meaning-bestowing. As Jack Carroll put it in his church book, As One with Authority, congregations help people "reflect on and interpret their lives in light of God's purpose in Jesus Christ." That's the one thing churches do that's not done by any other institution.
Too many congregations in my denomination act as if we were in a 1950's culture that's still at least vestigially Christian; the culture serves as a prop for the church. Being Christian is synonymous with being a thoughtful, caring, sensitive American, only nicer. People become Christian by drinking the water, breathing the air, and being lucky enough to be born in America.
Not much thinking required to make sense from a peculiarly Christian point of view when everybody is already Christian, sort of.
So, having forsaken the task of meaning-making, many liberal, mainline churches attempt to justify themselves by flailing around, searching for something socially acceptable to do with themselves. They form therapy groups, work with a few homeless, dispense advice to Congress, or urge people to get out and vote.
A church I know just spent eight sermons on sex. Alas, people who want to hear a Methodist preacher talk sex are few.
Sometime ago media observer Mark Silk noted that newspapers run only ten stories about the church, tropes that are repeated again and again. A favorite is "Suburban Church Helps the Homeless," another is, "Church Makes Backpacks for Needy Kids."
It's as if these news stories say, "We all agree that the church is out of date and irrelevant but, Surprise! Here's a church that is actually doing something useful!"
The Pew data suggest that for many Americans the line between church and Rotary has become thin. (At least Rotary meets at a convenient hour of the week and serves lunch.)
My late friend, novelist Reynolds Price, explained that he left church in the Sixties not only because it was racially segregated but also because it had forgotten what people need most.
"I'd go to church," Reynolds said, "and they would ask me to coach kids' basketball, help in the church kitchen, or attend a fellowship supper. Church is supposed to be where God lives. If a church doesn't make the outrageous assertion that God is a Jew from Nazareth who rose from the dead and makes our lives much more difficult and demanding, it's intellectually uninteresting."
As a former church member said recently, "At my church we get advice from the pulpit -- how to have a happier marriage, how to have a purpose-driven life, how to vote. Sometimes it's good advice, but it's no different than I would have gotten from my daily Huffington Post." (ouch) "Why bother with all the church baggage when there's nothing said that fundamentally challenges who I am and where I'm headed?"
There's ample evidence that Americans need help thinking truthfully about our lives. At its best the church helps us think sub specie aeternitatis (Spinoza), under the guise of eternity, looking through the lens of God. That's the most useful thing we can do for this society, though the church's value is not merely in its social utility. Church is where we go to talk about sin and death and God, and dare consider the possibility that more is going on in us and the world than we can adequately comprehend with our socially acceptable, governmentally subsidized modes of explanation.
For decades I was Dean of Duke University Chapel. In order to prepare for my annual graduation sermon I gathered a focus group of graduating students, asking them, "What are some hot topics for your generation?" They half-heartedly suggested a list.
Then one said, "Graduation weekend, we are bound to get lots of advice, 'cause that's what old guys like to force on people like us. We'll be hammered by platitudes from psychology, economics, and politics.
"Talk about God. That's not only what you are most qualified to do but also what scares us shitless. I'm not sure I believe that God exists, but it's weird that you think he does. I hope you'll have enough guts to try to change the conversation."
I hope that guy, who graduated years ago, has found a church that knows how to stick to the main business of the church. If not, I'm sure he's part of a growing number of those who look at the lives of many mainline Protestant churches, yawn, and ask, "Why bother?"