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More Atheists Might Actually Strengthen Religion

Since religious people are in the business of hope, some believers like myself think this decline might just be the best thing that ever happened to organized religion. Though painful and confusing, the time we are entering offers opportunities for renewal.
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Religion questionnaire with pencil.
Religion questionnaire with pencil.

Everyone agrees that we are entering an increasingly tough era for organized religion, with a recent PEW poll showing a sharp rise among spiritually un-affiliated Americans. In only seven years, these 'nones' have risen sharply from 16 percent of our population to nearly 24, only confirming what clergy across the spiritual spectrum already see in their pews. While mainline Protestant denominations are hurting the worst, even conservative mega churches, for the first time, declined in membership last year.

And no one seems to have answers as to how to stem the increasing exodus.

Most faith communities will continue to do what they have done for generations--but this era may be more dangerous than most churchgoers realize. It's like the long wait out west for the Big One--and for most faith communities, tremors are already shaking the old timbers.

Yet since religious people are in the business of hope, some believers like myself think this decline might just be the best thing that ever happened to organized religion. Though painful and confusing, the time we are entering offers opportunities for renewal. These shifts may be hard to accept, however, when something you love is being so severely tested. When Winston Churchill unexpectedly lost re-election as Prime Minister at the close of World War Two, his wife Clementine offered the consolation that perhaps the defeat was a blessing in disguise. "If so," Churchill huffed, "it is very well disguised indeed."

So what's the good news hidden in the bad news?

First, there is real freedom in entering an era where people actually have to want to be present; that there are no longer societal pressures to have to belong to any congregation. I grew up in a small town in East Tennessee, and believe me, these larger pressures were very real. Congregations might become smaller, but everyone will know why they are there.

Second, religions can stop feeling entitled. Fighting a little for your existence is good for the soul, and that's certainly true for too-proud institutions. Samuel Johnson observed that nothing increases your concentration more than standing on the gallows. Striving to speak to people's needs with focus and urgency is quite a good thing.

Third, we have to face the fact that for many we have been boring. Religions are not in the entertainment business, true--but we have no excuse for being as sedate and blasé as we have sometimes been. Religion should be, and can be, blazingly challenging. Talking about life and death, right and wrong, nothing less than the eternal - there is no reason for this not to be exciting. My favorite Bible verse is from Revelation: "Because you were luke-warm...I will spew you out of my mouth." Hey, I didn't say it, God did.

Fourth, if money is going to be tight, and it will be, then large old church buildings can find multiple uses that serve the community, faiths can come together and be enriched through sharing space. If a religious community can't afford a full-time "professional," then maybe they can discover great gifts by each sharing the load of leadership. None of this will be easy, or straightforward, but we can benefit from such changes. My first congregation in Columbia, Maryland, built a building with a local Methodist church, and we immediately rented to a Conservative Jewish group. Each gained, and none suffered.

Fifth, it is liberating to know that the time of coasting and taking it easy is over. We will have to prove ourselves to people as to our tradition's worth, effectiveness, and most of all, affection. I can't be sorry about that. If sermons need to be sharper, shorter, and more affecting (or even forgotten once in awhile for other creative uses of precious liturgical time), then so be it. If our music needs to be more diverse and open, great.

Sixth, it is a good test seeing if one's faith is capable of change. I have always taken a Darwinian approach to church life--if our congregations speak to people's lives, they will survive and even prosper. If we do not offer joy and solace and deep wisdom, then we won't. Congregations can disappear, and many no doubt will, but the ones that will live on will be the ones that have the energy and dedication to reach and reassure people in fractious times.

Lastly, where people sense joy, they will come. Where people sense fear, and focus on institutional needs, boy, will they ever stay away. People who are leaving institutional religion today are offering a clear message--and a great gift. They are saying, we aren't hearing what we need, and deserve.

We need to re-discover just what these "nones" are missing in us--because we have likely been missing it as well. Each institutional religion once contained a fiery and real faith, and can again, if we are willing to pay the price.