Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Why the Pew Report on Religious Affiliation Matters

In seminary, I went from being used to being the oldest in a family to being the very youngest.  I'm the oldest in my generation in my entire extended biological family by a couple of years, but upon entering the Master of Divinity degree program at my seminary, I spent my entire three years there as the youngest student in my entire extended seminary family: my M.Div. class of 2011.  While I had a number of classmates who were close to my age, I was the baby of my class.

And I continued to keep that status as I went into parish ministry here in rainy southwestern Washington.  I'm the youngest pastor who is active in my town's ministerial association, I'm the youngest pastor who is active in my region's district clergy group, and in a variety of clergy meetings, I am often the youngest minister in the room by at least a decade.

I share all this because as clergy, we often mirror the communities we serve.  Churches seek pastors whose doctrine or denominational affiliation aligns with their own, and oftentimes, demographic factors like gender/sex, sexual orientation, and, yes, even age, can play a factor.

And age, as it so happens, is devastating the church.  Yesterday, the Pew Research Forum released a demographic study which they do every several years that puts the precipitous decline of religious affilation into pretty stark terms.  In short: the major categories of evangelical Christian, mainline Christian, and Roman Catholic all showed statistically significant decline since 2007, and the latter two groups especially so, at rates over three times higher than evangelical Christianity.  Orthodox and Mormon Christians also declined, though, interestingly enough, the Jehovah's Witnesses increased in numbers.

The slight decline in Mormon membership is a bellweather, I think, and I've heard almost nobody else talk about it.  Mormon families tend to have well above average birth rates (indeed, in his 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven on the history of Mormonism and Mormon fundamentalism, Jon Krakauer notes that Provo, the de facto epicenter of Mormonism, has the highest birth rate in America), and if that movement is declining, it means we can't get away with saying it is simply because our parents and grandparents aren't being replaced biologically.

No, it is that they aren't being replaced theologically.  In mainline Christianity, we also have to contend with a much lower birth rate in addition to the reality that we've done an epic fail of a job of passing the baton onto my generation: the loss in Christian identity almost entirely corresponds to an increase in "unaffiliated" identity, and that is the result of us millennials now being adults and, thus, polling subjects for studies like these.

A lot of what I have been reading has been of the Chicken Little "the sky is falling" variety, but I prefer to instead ask why we got here in the first place, since that is probably more instructive than simply howling "We're all going to die!" like an extra in a third rate zombie movie.  And as to why and how we got to where we're at, well, I have a few theories:

The church deserves the lack of trust put in it

The church (universal church, not any one denomination) hasn't recovered from, really, a series of scandals and blemishes that go all the way back to the 1980s: you had the transformation of churches into battlegrounds for overzealous culture warriors under the late Jerry Falwell and his (im)Moral Majority plus the fraud scandals of televangelists like Peter Popoff and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.  Fast forward to the 21st century and you have the sheer scope and depth of the Roman Catholic pedoophile priest scandal plus continued financial improprieties like in Mark Driscoll's former Mars Hill Church and First Family in my hometown Kansas City area.

We have, like the Pharisees of old, proven ourselves to be hypocrites, and people have justifiably decided not to trust us or our hollow teachings about morality.

The church, in turn, doesn't exhibit trust either

The abject lack of willingness to consider young Christians for leadership positions or, even more radically, to completely rethink the leadership structures of congregations, organizations, and denominations to be more in line with how this generation lives their lives, continues to astound me.  My generation isn't trusted with their hands on the levers of power yet, and so older generations continue, completely understandably, with the institutions and structures they know, not understanding just how out of sync said institutions are with the wider world.  Which leads me to...

The church is in a time warp of its own making

As long as worship services included hymns all written prior to the 1970s, a call and response litany, and a sermon that included three major points that all started with the same letter, the church could go on living in the world it loved and longed for, even as the world in fact was changing all around it.  Then, when this time capsule method of being church was no longer sustainable, congregations discovered that they didn't just have a few years of catching up to do, they had decades upon decades to make up for.  And just like it would be jarring if you took someone used to living in the tropics and dropped them in Antarctica, so too has it been jarring for thousands of congregations who were used to living in the mid 20th century to suddenly find themselves rudely dropped fifteen years into the 21st.

The church is cramming, which is never a good study strategy

So, once a congregation finds itself in the present day, they realize that maybe they have to change after all, but they try (or demand to) cram three or four decades worth of change into three or four years, which is a mighty tall order even for a perfectly healthy community.  Often, as in my case, this cramming comes with the calling of a new pastor, but it doesn't have to.  What it does always come with, though, is great and staggering expectations for the people themselves who are doing the cramming.  Imagine that the church is a student who has neglected all homework for a class on contemporary culture and then finds itself a week before the final exam without any clue as to how to ace it...that is the circumstance we have found ourselves in, and much like all of these other factors I am talking about, it is of our own doing.  We didn't have to procrastinate on studying how the world was changing, we chose to because we didn't actually think our teacher would flunk us.

All of these are why the Pew report matters so much, and why we should pay attention to what it is trying to say to us as communities of believers in Christ.  We have spent far too long ignoring what the world is trying to say to us and about us, and it would be sinful of us to continue on that path, because now, finally, at long last, we do indeed know differently.  We know better.

Now, we have to go and live that new knowledge.

Yours in Christ,

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