being religious

Many people probably view being religious as about being part of a religious institution. But a growing part of the population no longer sees it that way.

We are creatures who cannot help wondering about the meaning of life and the universe in which we live. Theologian Paul Tillich defined religion as “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of life.” To be religious within the context of any culture, therefore, is to be devoted to whatever it is which is believed to matter most in life. Obviously, there is no universally accepted answer to the question posed by our ultimate concern. Some people believe that life has no ultimate meaning, but their conclusion is still a response to the fundamental human question that we all share at some level.

spiritual, not religious

silhouette of young adultsPollster George Gallup’s 1998 report, The Religious Life of Young Americans, reported that most young Americans believe that it is very important that life be meaningful and have a purpose. Yet a high percentage of these same people believe that most churches and synagogues today are not effective in helping people find that meaning.

When it comes to matters of faith, postmodern people embrace spirituality but largely reject traditional organized religion. They think of religion as being associated with the “public” realm of institutions, creeds, and rituals. They’ve latched onto the term “spirituality” as something separate, dealing with the “private” realm of personal experience, and representing for them a more genuine form of faith. A significant group now consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.”

This is not to suggest that their spirituality is entirely private and self-focused. That is a critique that can be leveled against many people who consider themselves very religious. Instead, many postmoderns find that their spirituality and quest for meaning engages them in a dedicated concern for others, in the cause for peace and justice, and a commitment to the well-being of creation. They simply find those opportunities outside of religious institutions.

It is possible that our youth are simply leading us in the search for a religionless Christianity.

experience is everything

Postmoderns often report negative experiences with churches or church leaders. For example, they may perceive church leaders as more concerned with building an organization and institution than in promoting spirituality. They may find more of an emphasis on internal congregational well-being than on service and social justice. They may perceive some religious people as hypocritical, narrow-minded and judgmental. This is particularly true for some young Evangelicals. Postmoderns may experience Christianity as an exclusive religion that rejects homosexual people and condemns people of other faiths. And they may have even experienced emotional and sexual abuse by trusted church leaders. Because conservative Republicans attend church in greater percentages than do liberal Democrats, postmoderns often view the church as a haven for a politics that ignores the needs of the poor, celebrates militarism, and tramples on the welfare of the planet.

a post-denomination era

In the past, denominational differences were rooted in ethnic origins and economic status. Because people were more firmly rooted in place and family, denominational loyalty passed from generation to generation. In 1958, for example, only 1 in 25 Americans had left the religious denomination of their upbringing. Today, more than one in three people have left or switched church denominations.

We have clearly entered a post-denomination era in American religion. Postmoderns are less loyal to religious denominations and tend to downplay the nuances of their theological differences. They are unlikely to remain part of any congregation that doesn’t play a relevant role in their lives.

the increasing exodus

Postmodern people are abandoning the church. Baby Boomers are drifting away. With their children grown, a major motivator for attending is removed. In addition, many churches have found that their message is not reaching and drawing in younger generations. In fact, the rejection of organized religion grows with each new generation.

The number of people
identifying themselves as Christian
is dropping one percent per year.

According to a survey from the MacArthur Foundation, seven out of ten Americans say they are religious and consider spirituality to be an important part of their lives. But about half attend religious services less than once a month, or never. In 2002 the George Barna Research Group found that only 42% of Boomers and 52% of older adults attended weekly church services.

The Gallup Poll found that while belief in God is stable over time among young people, the percentage of teenagers attending weekly services has dropped to just 4 out of 10. According to George Barna’s research, only 35% of Generations X and Y (Millennials) attend church weekly. The majority of Generation X has never been involved in a church, or even a Sunday School. Their parents stopped attending when they were young people—in the 1960s and 70s. This generation is interested in spirituality, but has no background and little interest in formal religion.

A survey by the City University of New York found that when asked to identify their religious affiliation, the top three responses of Americans were “Catholic,” “Baptist,” and “No Religion.”

The disaffection is increasing with each generation. According to another survey cited in the book American Generations: Who They Are, How They Live, What They Think, when asked their religious preference, only 4 percent of people born before the Great Depression said “None”, compared to 7 percent for the Swing generation (1933-45), 12 percent for Baby Boomers (1946-64), and 19 percent for Generation X (1965-81).

The number of people identifying themselves as Christian is dropping one percent per year. And regular attendance at services, defined as people who give money, dropped from 49 percent in 1991 to 36 percent by 1996.

the growing divide

John Shelby Spong describes the people who are leaving as “the church alumni association.” He contends, “The only churches that grow today are those that do not, in fact, understand the issues, and can therefore traffic in certainty. They represent the fundamentalist Protestant groups and the rigidly controlled Catholic conservative traditions.”

The only churches that grow today
are those that do not understand
the issues.

But there is evidence that growth in these churches has also slowed dramatically.

The divide between religion and spirituality in America will grow only wider. While traditional religious adherents are gravitating toward more conservative, rigorous forms of faith, the spirituality seekers are moving in the opposite direction toward highly individualized and unstructured beliefs.

Scholar and author Don Cupitt wrote in Reforming Christianity:

“The Christian churches are melting away: in Europe, at least, on most of the indices of measurable decline they are currently losing almost a quarter of what’s left in each decade, and a half in each generation. The main reason for their decline is a general loss of public confidence in the objective truth of the major Christian beliefs.”

the death of European Christianity

In The Death of Christian Britain, Callum Brown claims that the single most important element in the free-fall in church attendance in Britain was the Church’s resistance to the feminist revolution in the 1960s. Brown’s central claim is that Christianity in Britain was not decimated by the slow creep of secularism but by the swift success of the women’s movement.

Traditional Christianity was based upon very rigid gender roles. Historically, women were subordinated to men as far as leadership went, but were viewed as spiritually superior to them and sent by God to restrain and civilize them. All of this was based upon a particular reading of scripture, particularly the writings attributed (sometimes falsely) to Christianity’s first theologian, the Apostle Paul.

Rosie the riveter - "We can do it!"When Christian feminists started challenging these stereotypes, a contest occurred between women’s rights to the same freedom and opportunities as men, and the traditional biblical view of their role. Traditionalists argued that changes in gender roles would undermine the whole biblical system, opening all of scripture to challenge.

If you are a Christian who believes that every word in the Bible was in some sense dictated by God then you are going to have massive problems with contemporary society, particularly with its changing attitude toward women and sexuality.

If you are a Christian who believes in the freedom of women to order their own destiny within the normal limitations that define any human life, then you have already deconstructed the traditional view of the Bible.

When the majority of the population in many parts of Europe chose to affirm and celebrate the right of women to embrace roles that were previously closed to them, they found the traditional Christian understanding of life was no longer plausible. Europeans abandoned Christianity en masse because it was fundamentally inconsistent with their new consciousness.

According to Brown, the whole edifice in Britain started to crumble in a remarkably short period after 1963. Since the 1970s the secularization of much of Europe, Australia and New Zealand rapidly followed. Today in France, more Muslims attend weekly worship than Christians.

The situation was somewhat different in the United States due to the extraordinary public influence of conservative evangelical voices and the Moral Majority. Americans felt more ambivalent toward the renunciation of biblical injunctions. In Europe, the church was more closely aligned with the state, and that contributed to its demise. The secularization of America began at a much slower pace, but indications are that it is rapidly accelerating.

Change is inevitable. However, when the church is unwilling to change—when it drags its heels and digs in, reinforcing the status quo, when it represents only the past and not the future, when it mimics ancient patriarchal patterns and denies egalitarian status of all people, when it has lost its prophetic voice—that church will be left in the dust of history.

Perhaps the only form of Christianity that can attract new generations of people in the Global North is a non-religious form. But how would a religionless Christianity pass on the the teachings of Jesus to our children? It is possible that a radically reformed church existing in small communities could embody the spirit of the early Jesus movement. The emergent church movement in the United States is experimenting with such forms today. But by and large, when the church reaches out to postmoderns, it is simply trying to put new wine in old wineskins.