Henry G. Brinton in USA Today discusses the growth of Do It Yourself Christianity and the shrinking of brand name denominations. A story related to The Lead
A generation ago, people turned to trusted authorities such as newspapers and mainline churches to get information. But trust in such institutions has fallen over the past 30 years, eroding the relationship between Americans and a number of traditional sources of trust. A poll called the General Social Survey has asked people whether they have "a great deal of confidence" in social institutions, and their answers reveal a clear decline.
According to this survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, confidence has dropped since the 1970s in:
* Banks and financial institutions (From 35% to 28%).
* Major companies (26% to 17%).
* The press (24% to 9%).
* Education (36% to 27%).
* Organized religion (35% to 24%).
Whether you attribute this fall to Watergate or Enron or clergy sexual misconduct, the damage has clearly been done.
This is a serious concern to pastors like me, who serve churches associated with what used to be the "trusted brands" of Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, and Presbyterian Christianity. These mainline denominations grew through the 1940s and '50s but began to lose members about 1965. Today, some are one-third smaller than they were 40 years ago.
He also notes:
Of course, denominational pastors like myself have some lessons to learn from successful independent churches. I need to accept that today's spiritual seekers want quality, clarity, convenience and community in their practice of faith, and they will choose the church that offers the programs that best meet their personal needs. Few people will join my church simply because it is Presbyterian, just as a shrinking number of people will buy a car because of loyalty to General Motors. Consumers today want a product with the best features, whether it is a church with a dynamic youth program or an automobile with an excellent crash-test rating.
Individual choice and control are affecting all of our institutions, from financial organizations (Internet banking) to journalism (blogging) to education (distance learning). The church is not immune from this, and we'll see increasing diversity in the "emerging churches" that are attracting a new generation of people in their 20s and 30s who are suspicious of organized religion. Overseas, independent churches are experiencing explosive growth, especially in Brazil and South Africa, and it won't be long before churches in the USA feel the effects of this movement.
Henry G. Brinton is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia and author of Balancing Acts: Obligation, Liberation, and Contemporary Christian Conflicts.
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