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Jerry Davich: Are we losing our religion?

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Updated: November 22, 2012 6:23AM



One in five Americans — and a third of adults under 30 — now claims no religious identity, a new study boldly states. Zero. Zilch. None.

In fact, a new group with a controversial name, the “Nones,” is reportedly the second-largest religious brand in this country, next to Catholics, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Its study, released earlier this month, is even titled “Nones on the Rise.”

Although the majority of this country’s 46 million “unaffiliated adults” are religious or spiritual in some way, the study shows, they think religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

It’s not that this rising group doesn’t believe in God (68 percent do), or that they don’t classify themselves as spiritual (37 percent do), or that they don’t pray daily (one in five does). They simply don’t want to affiliate themselves with any mainline religion. This is especially true for today’s young generation of “millennials.”

Because of this, America’s top religious brand, Protestant, and its leading denomination, the Southern Baptists, are no longer on top, the study states. The slide went from two in three Protestant-backing believers in the 1960s to less than half today, and this shift is not only affecting our collective religion, but also our culture and politics.

Is this really something new in the United States of Apathy? Is this a cyclical phenomenon that we’ve experienced before? Another canary in the proverbial coal mine of organized religion? Or, as I believe, is this simply another watershed milestone in the secularization of our country?

If it is, what can or should mainline churches do to counter this rising and, to many believers, frightening trend? And do they have a prayer anyway to return to the “good old days”?

I asked these questions to a handful of experts, pastors, and a sociologist. Here is a sampling of their excerpted responses.

‘Disillusionment’

“Each year our society becomes more secular,” said the Rev. Bill Hudson of First Presbyterian Church of Merrillville. “Fewer people are going to church and many who go, do not join.” Hudson said even the categories used to describe what “brand of Christianity” you are has changed over time.

“You still have Catholic and Orthodox, but that other group now would call itself non-denominational, independent, charismatic, Pentecostal, or mainline Protestant,” he said. “I see this trend will increase and congregations will have to adapt to the new reality.”

Hudson surprised me by noting that because of this new reality, “If I had to start ministry over today, (that) would have lead me away to seek employment outside of the church.”

Pastor Mike Bean of Crossroads Family Church in Portage blames the drop-off in church affiliation, in part, to lean economic times, which forces people to focus their attention, and time, to simply staying afloat. And also to the “disillusionment” within both Catholic and Protestant groups, rocked by sexual or financial scandals.

He also smartly notes the sizable increase in the immigrant population over the last 20 years, many who have not been integrated into the Protestant church culture.

“The Assemblies of God, my denomination, has grown, but a lot of it has been through groups such as Latino and Asian,” Bean said.

Churches have done a “miserable job” retaining post-teen parishioners who tend to follow their music, friends and lifestyle, not necessarily considered the holy trinity of values.

“The United States has not experienced a spiritual awakening for nearly a whole generation,” Bean said. “The politics of the last 10 years has been divisive with labels put on population segments. A spiritual awakening tears those walls down and brings civility.”

Along with other men of the cloth, Bean finds the rise in atheism “quite disturbing.” But, he admits, it parallels the direction the American culture has been taking over the past generation.

“It seems that church is no longer a major part of life for many Americans and, because of this, individuals grow up to believe God and church are irrelevant,” he added.

New book, old topic

In his new book, “A New Kind of Missionary: What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Global Church,” author Lionel Young III describes the southern shift of Christianity over the last 100 years, a swing largely unnoticed by Western churchgoers.

Young, senior pastor at Calvary Church in Valparaiso, said this new study clearly points out that “denominational loyalty” is a thing of the past.

“Today, people commit to a local church based on almost every factor other than denomination,” he said, whether it’s the vibrancy of the community, the vision and passion of the leadership, or the opportunity to get connected to others.

“We are seeing this first hand at Calvary Church where we have grown in recent years from 300 worshippers to more than 1,000 worshippers,” he said. “We are now seeing people come from all kinds of backgrounds — Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, and many with absolutely no church background at all.”

“Denominationalism is still around, but denominational loyalty is passé,” he said, noting that the name on any given church sign is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Still, we as a society are not heading the way of Western Europe, where secularism has become the new religion, he believes.

“While Christianity is exploding in growth in the global south, such as Latin America, Africa and Asia, American religious zeal is flagging.”

What can foundering churches do to curb the slow, painful bleeding of its members? Learn from other growing churches, he suggests.

“Many, though not all, mainline churches are struggling the most because they are stuck in the past,” he said. “They have made a strategic error.”

In order to become “relevant,” those churches have altered traditional church teaching while retaining older worship forms. On the contrary, the fastest-growing churches are striving to remain true to traditional doctrines and values while breathing new life into old worship forms.

“Rooted and relevant is the wave of the future, and studies are indicating that these churches are thriving.”

Despite the rising numbers of “nones,” our country remains one of the most religious nations among modern, industrialized societies around the world, according to Kevin McElmurry, a sociologist at Indiana University Northwest.

The takeaway from this new study is that although the “nones” are less willing to attend and affiliate, they still value spiritual ideals, both personally and community related.

In the words of British sociologist Grace Davie, they are “believing without belonging.”

What would Jesus do?

The Rev. Jeffrey Kirch, religious adviser to the president of Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, said the evolution of “American religiosity” is not a new phenomenon. What is new is that so many people (the “nones”) now have no affiliation at all.

“Culturally, this is similar to the decline of several societal institutions such as the nuclear family, fraternal societies and other civic organizations,” Kirch said. “Commitment and loyalty to organizations, whether religious, civic or even employers, is not what it was in the past.”

As religion’s collective voice in the “public square” gets minimized, as it has through the decades, churches and places of worship play a smaller role in the public arena.

“Some people question the effectiveness of the voices,” he noted.

Plus, our contemporary culture is based on the notion of choice, with the mind-set of the more options the better. Unfortunately, Kirch said, commitment is too often sacrificed for growth with all of our options.

Churches need to get back to their roots by first helping people understand the importance of Christ’s teachings in the 21st century. And secondly, by reaching out to those in need, he said.

Chip Roush, interim minister at First Unitarian Church of Hobart, believes the “nones” (a term he hates) will not ultimately kill and crucify organized religion.

The same eternal questions of life, death and afterlife that confounded or consumed our ancestors eons ago are still the same questions we’re asking ourselves today.

“People are still seeking the truth, but more are doing it on their own solitary path,” Roush said.

People who find their way to his church are looking for a place not to be judged, he said. Isn’t that what God is for anyway, and ultimately?

Throngs of Bible-thumping believers are convinced the devil is surely behind this rising population of “nones.” Roush disagrees.

“In my opinion, there is no devil. It’s only in our hearts and minds,” he replied.

Pastor Gary Nagy of Trinity Lutheran Church in Hobart said younger believers are short on time and heavy on suspicion regarding corporations, organizations and institutions such as churches.

“Churches aren’t meeting the ‘nones’ where they are,” Nagy said.

Instead of relentlessly preaching to them, they should do as Jesus would do. For example, when a believer goes out of the way to help a stranger and then is asked, “Why are you helping me?” The answer should be, “I am a Christian. This is what I do.”

“That is our chance,” Nagy said. “People who see that kind of love want to know more about the author of that kind of love — Jesus.”

Do you agree, disagree, or have your own theories? Join the discussion on my blog, at www.jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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