Old maxim: “If you keep doing what you do, you going to keep getting what you get.”
A number of people think that, because our church membership numbers are shrinking, that religion in the US is dying. We read reports from top-flight research organizations like PRRI, who recently said:
“By the end of the 1990s, 14% of the public claimed no religious affiliation. The rate of religious change accelerated further during the late 2000s and early 2010s, reaching 20% by 2012. Today , one-quarter (25%) of Americans claim no formal religious identity, making this group the single largest ‘religious group’ in the U.S.”*
So, the percentage of unaffiliated in the US rose 11% over the last 20 years or so, from 14% to 25%. That seems to be a lot. But…
…if we dig into the numbers, the general population of the US rose by 22% during the same time-frame, twice as fast as the 11% rise of the unaffiliated people number. That means that the pool of people in the US who are most likely to affiliate with a religion is larger today than, say, 1996. (1996: 228M, 2016: 243M)
So, if our churches are struggling with decreasing numbers, it’s not because there are fewer and fewer people today who believe; there’s actually more today than in the golden past. It must be because we are doing something wrong to attract and retain them. After all, they’re out there. It’s just that they aren’t in here!
I find this good news, actually. There is this “Eureka!” moment when many of us finally gain an insight into a thorny issue and understand it better. Better understanding of a problem means we are closer to a solution to the problem. And maybe things are not as bad as we think.
Despite the reality of a growing number of people who no longer believe, it is also a reality that there is a growing number of people who do believe. The percentages are shifting a bit, but people of faith are not disappearing. They just aren’t showing up in the pews like they used to.
One thing that comes to mind is the notion that pew-sitting may not be as popular as it once was – or convenient.
Perhaps the Sunday-morning-worship, everybody-in-the-pew model of parish life is neither attractive nor compatible with 21st century western life. Lots of people work on Sunday, or it might be the one morning per week that they get to sleep-in, for we all are exhausted from the 50-hour work weeks we now live.
Perhaps, now that we know that there are more believing people today than in the past generation, we need to look at how we “do church”, and get creative with how we gather as a faith community and preach/teach the Way of Jesus for a 21st century society. We don’t need to abandon the traditional model of parish, but rather expand our definition of “parish”.
Do we have a home-church movement in our denomination, where people can meet for liturgy and fellowship in an intimate home setting on a Tuesday night? Or meet at a private dining room of a restaurant on Thursdays? Or at the Elk’s Club? Or a picnic table at the park? Or even at the church sanctuary itself, but on a Wednesday?
Do our sermons and lessons talk about income insecurity, or bigotry, or domestic abuse, or depression, or the frenetic pace of life, and how God is intimately concerned about all these matters, and why God’s concern actually can matter to us?
Do we sometimes forget that many of our sacred parables and lessons often sound childish unless properly explored and taught? If we do not know our stories and understand them as 21st century adults, how can we know what it means to be a disciple? Disciple to what? And to who? And why?
If we keep doing what we do, we are going to keep getting what we get, and I know that a lot of my colleagues are not happy with their Average Sunday Attendance. How about we start changing things up a bit? Let’s try some different ways to meet, different ways to worship, and different ways to relate…and let’s see what happens. We don’t need to study this to death. Study time is over. It’s now time to act.
*”Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion”, P.R.R.I, Sept. 9, 2016