What Do Evangelicals Have That We Don’t?

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. Director of Spiritual Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas offers three positive qualities about evangelicanism today.

What do Evangelicals have that we (Progressive, Mainliners) don’t have—other than larger churches, larger seminaries, bigger attendance on Sunday, more serious engagement with Scripture, and enough passion for their faith to keep David Platt’s Radical on the best seller list for 55 weeks running?

We can sniff and comfort ourselves with pride, if we want to do that. But I am sure that was pretty much where the crew of the Titanic lived just before the ice water began to roll in over their feet.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a size thing. But we can only console ourselves for so long by arguing, “small is beautiful” or “we are too sophisticated to be popular.” “Large” may not mean “good,” but “small” is not necessarily a synonym for “virtuous” either. Sometimes, small just means “not all that interesting.”

Read the full article here, and let’s start a conversation!

Religion Among the Millennials: Less Religiously Active Than Older Americans, But Fairly Traditional In Other Ways

The Pew Research Center has posted a new series of reports exploring the behaviors, values and opinions of the teens and twenty-somethings that make up the Millennial generation.

From the overview:

By some key measures, Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young. Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation – so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 – are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s). Young adults also attend religious services less often than older Americans today. And compared with their elders today, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives.

Yet in other ways, Millennials remain fairly traditional in their religious beliefs and practices. Pew Research Center surveys show, for instance, that young adults’ beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles closely resemble the beliefs of older people today . . . And though belief in God is lower among young adults than among older adults, Millennials say they believe in God with absolute certainty at rates similar to those seen among Gen Xers a decade ago. This suggests that some of the religious differences between younger and older Americans today are not entirely generational but result in part from people’s tendency to place greater emphasis on religion as they age.

Read or download the full report here.

The Real Decline of Churches

Three news stories in recent days point to significant change in the landscape of North American religion.  For decades now, the conventional wisdom about church growth has been that only conservative churches–those that take the Bible literally and embrace conservative politics–could grow.  But it appears that conventional wisdom is being seriously questioned.
Take a look at these stories:
1.     The Southern Baptist Convention–the largest and most conservative Protestant denomination in the USA–records a continued decline in baptisms and an increasingly aging membership.  The oft-reported number of 18 million members has declined in the last decade to just over 16 million.  And, according to journalist Christine Wicker (see her book, The Fall of Evangelical Nation), the internal number of active members may well be around 5 million people.
2.     The Anglican Church of North America, the umbrella group for conservative Episcopalians who have left their denomination over women’s ordination and full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons, has long claimed over 100,000 members.  Recently, they admitted that only 69,000 persons in 650 churches in the USA and Canada have joined their association. There are 2.2 million Episcopalians in the United States and approximately 1 million in Canada.  Thus, the conservative group–the one that has garnered so much media attention in recent years is a very small percentage of the entire North American Anglican membership–some 2% of the total.  And with their rigid opposition to women’s ordination, it is hard to imagine that this group will find much appeal with young North Americans.
3.     President Jimmy Carter last week publicly explained why he renounced his life-long affiliation with the Southern Baptists in an opinion piece appearing in The Age.  He denounced the Convention’s leaders statement that women are inferior to men (created “second”) and responsible for original sin as inherently discriminatory and that Southern Baptist views on gender were contrary to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the teachings of Jesus.

From Diana Butler Bass on Beliefnet:

Three news stories in recent days point to significant change in the landscape of North American religion.  For decades now, the conventional wisdom about church growth has been that only conservative churches–those that take the Bible literally and embrace conservative politics–could grow.  But it appears that conventional wisdom is being seriously questioned.  Take a look at these stories:

1.     The Southern Baptist Convention–the largest and most conservative Protestant denomination in the USA–records a continued decline in baptisms and an increasingly aging membership.  The oft-reported number of 18 million members has declined in the last decade to just over 16 million.  And, according to journalist Christine Wicker (see her book, The Fall of Evangelical Nation), the internal number of active members may well be around 5 million people.

2.     The Anglican Church of North America, the umbrella group for conservative Episcopalians who have left their denomination over women’s ordination and full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons, has long claimed over 100,000 members.  Recently, they admitted that only 69,000 persons in 650 churches in the USA and Canada have joined their association. There are 2.2 million Episcopalians in the United States and approximately 1 million in Canada.  Thus, the conservative group–the one that has garnered so much media attention in recent years is a very small percentage of the entire North American Anglican membership–some 2% of the total.  And with their rigid opposition to women’s ordination, it is hard to imagine that this group will find much appeal with young North Americans.

3.     President Jimmy Carter last week publicly explained why he renounced his life-long affiliation with the Southern Baptists in an opinion piece appearing in The Age.  He denounced the Convention’s leaders statement that women are inferior to men (created “second”) and responsible for original sin as inherently discriminatory and that Southern Baptist views on gender were contrary to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the teachings of Jesus.

Be sure to read the entire article here.

Study Shows Why Americans Drift From Religion

shift1From the Executive Summary:

Americans change religious affiliation early and often. In total, about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives. Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24, and many of those who change religion do so more than once. These are among the key findings of a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. The survey documents the fluidity of religious affiliation in the U.S. and describes in detail the patterns and reasons for change.

The reasons people give for changing their religion – or leaving religion altogether – differ widely depending on the origin and destination of the convert. The group that has grown the most in recent years due to religious change is the unaffiliated population. Two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated and half of former Protestants who have become unaffiliated say they left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, and roughly four-in-ten say they became unaffiliated because they do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions. Additionally, many people who left a religion to become unaffiliated say they did so in part because they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money. Far fewer say they became unaffiliated because they believe that modern science proves that religion is just superstition.

My own experience in talking with people who are unaffiliated with a community of faith leads me to believe that many encounter interpretations of Christian doctrine they can no longer own or accept.  Where the original sources of the Christian faith–sacred Scripture, lived tradition, human reason–are not allowed to engage in creative dialogue with the insights and sensibilities of the emerging culture of the twenty-first century, there is a huge credibility gap.  People will always search for community and moral grounding, but in today’s world, that search must be met with radical welcome and a willingness to grapple creatively with the most difficult questions of life and faith in the world as it is today.

By the way, I’m personally glad that “dissatisfaction with the clergy at congregation” wasn’t number one on the survey!

Read it all here.  Pew Forum Full Report here.

Real Faith in a Real World

This coming Sunday I’ll begin a series of sermons that I’m entitling “Real Faith in a Real World.” For some time I have wanted to explore the significant gap that exists between “organized religion” and “personal spirituality.”  Recent research has shown that many of those outside of Christianity, especially younger adults, have little trust in the Christian faith, and esteem for the lifestyle of those who claim to be Christ’s followers is quickly fading among them (see Dave Kinnaman’s recent book unChristian).   Many believe that congregations no longer represent what Jesus had in mind and that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be.  The gap between what we say we believe and what we practice in daily life is distressingly wide at times.  If only we could humbly admit this, I think many of those who have lost confidence in the Church might look at us again.

The irony here, as author and Anglican priest Dave Tomlinson points out, is that people are no less spiritual today than they were in the past, but they are a lot less religous – at least in a formal membership sense.  The Church in the 21st century has an image problem.  Tomlinson writes:

A disconnect has occurred between religion and spirituality: people no longer see religion or Church as the natural setting in which to explore or express their spiritual aspirations.  So they are drifting from churches in droves.  However, they are not doing so because they no longer believe in God, or because they have no hunger or interest in the spiritual aspect of life, but because, in their experience of Church, they are neither finding a faith they can believe in, nor an existential spirituality that can sustain their souls in an age of anxiety and estrangement.  Many people long to reconnect with the sacred mystery of life, to discover their place in the cosmos, but they don’t see Church or religion as a way of achieving this (from Re-Enchanting Christianity: Faith in an Emerging Culture).

The challenge is to be open to new ways of interpreting and living our faith as we undergo the rapid shifts of the emerging world of the 21st century.   Real faith requires an honest engagement not only with the incredibly rich historic Christian tradition but with challenging questions that people are asking about the nature of God and the relevance of the Christian tradition for their lives today.   The practice of radical welcome implies that we be open to the questions that sincere people are asking, and that we don’t fearfully close down our own.  Tomlinson includes this wonderful quote by the writer Madeleine L’Engle:

It my religion is true, it will stand up to all my questioning; there is no need to fear.  But if it is not true, if it is man’s imposing strictures on God (as did men of the Christian faith establishment of Galileo’s day) then I want to be open to God, not to what men say about God.  I want to be open to revelation, to new life, to new birth, to new light.”

Exploring how Christian faith can flourish and grow and make sense of today’s world is a critical imperative, it seems to me, of those given the privilege of teaching and preaching in the Church today, in fact of any Christian worth their salt.  What a daunting and yet thrilling task!