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“The End of Church”

“The End of Church”

There’s a sobering fact being recognized right now. All denominations in the United States of America are in decline. In a time as dire as the Church of England experienced in the mid-18th century, we are starting to see a collapse in the formal structures of religion as it has been practiced in the last century.

Diana Butler Bass writing on the Huffington Post site today says in part:

“The religious market collapse has happened with astonishing speed. In 1999, when survey takers asked Americans “Do you consider yourself spiritual or religious,” a solid majority of 54 percent responded that they were “religious but not spiritual.” By 2009, only 9 percent of Americans responded that way. In 10 years, those willing to identify themselves primarily as “religious” plummeted by 45 percentage points.

In the last decade, the word “religion” has become equated with institutional or organized religion. Because of crises such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Roman Catholic abuse scandal, Americans now define “religion” in almost exclusively negative terms. These larger events, especially when combined with increasing irrelevance of too much of organized religion, contributed to an overall decline in church membership, and an overall decline of the numbers of Christians, in the United States.

There may be hope, however, regarding the future of faith. Despite worry about the word, “religion,” Americans are extremely warm toward “spiritual but not religious” (30 percent) and, even more interestingly (and perhaps paradoxically), the term “spiritual and religious” (48 percent). While “religion” means institutional religion, “spirituality” means an experience of faith. Large numbers of Americans are hankering for experiential faith whereby they can connect with God, the divine, or wonder as well as with their neighbors and that lead to a more profound sense of meaning in the world. Maybe Americans once called this “religion,” but no more. Americans call it “spirituality.””

But she ends by finding hope in this new spirituality. And calls on the Church to embrace it rather than dismiss it as insufficient. As we move into a post-Christendom era in the West, there’s a lot to think about. Diana has a new book out, linked from the article above where she lays out her thinking more fully. There’s a lot of chatter online about the ideas.

Have any of you heard of any denominational or regional level voices engaging with these ideas, or especially with this book?


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Derek Olsen

…And it’s Priscilla for the win!

That’s a great comment and absolutely spot-on from my perspective.

Rod Gillis

There is a very interesting related article on this subject the webpage of The Anglican Journal (Canada) quoting Richard Dawkins.

Unfortunately, commenting on the Anglican Journal page seems to require over coming major “technical difficulties”.

Priscilla Cardinale

I have many friends, neighbors, family members, and co-workers who are hard-core anti-church and they have no hesitation in expressing their contempt for “church”.

They look at me with pity for my “childish” beliefs and faith. What they say, with pretty much one accord, is that they have no use for what they view as superstitious nonsense from far in the past that has little relevance to their day to day lives and seems designed to make them feel bad, guilty, and submissive to arbitrary powers they have no respect for.

They were all raised in various denominational churches, bombarded with bible verses from an early age; proof-texting that told them what they eventually came to believe were outright lies at worst and quaint mythologies at best.

Most are tired of being told that they should simply accept dogmas and dictates about rejecting others or themselves and their natural desires despite their own life experiences of critical judgements that tell them that these dogmas and dictates are untrue and often harmful and downright dangerous when used against those they love and live with, whether female, gay, or of a different faith.

They all think Jesus is great but have little use for a vengeful Old Testament God on a cloud spying on their every thought and action who punish them eternally for a single episode of sin.

They hear much more “repent” than they do “you are loved” and they frankly don’t fear not repenting. Heaven is a distant promise, as hell is a distant threat, and neither seem to hold up under scientific scrutiny or critical thought.

The deepening involvement of parts of the church in conservative politics contrasted with the relative silence or at least ineffective responses of more progressive Christians plays into their belief that Christianity as a whole and the church particularly are hypocritical frauds who care only about protecting their tax-free ride and bringing in donations for maintaining obscenely expensive houses of worship while preaching solidarity with the other and the poor.

Most of them consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious and the social controls and power that the church once controlled through baptism, confirmation, marriage, and burial rites is long gone yet they perceive the church as acting as if it still held that social power due to silly edicts from councils of bishops, popes, televangelists and funeral protesters.

They see little evidence of the Kingdom of God and Like it or not, fair or not, they equate Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson, et al with “church” and don’t bother to make the fine distinctions we do. These friends and coworkers and neighbors simply have no need for nor use for church in their lives anymore, or so they believe.

Unless and until the churches realize that the times have already changed and their power exists only within then I fear that we will truly see the end of church as we know it. Perhaps something new and better will arise from the ashes? I certainly hope so and pray for such myself.

I engage them in many discussions and listen to their opinions and lived experiences and invite them to come with me to church but most just laugh it off as a quaint custom from the past that has no place in modern life. The church did this to itself but I believe that working through the Holy Spirit it can be reborn. May God’s will be done.

Paul Fromberg

I appreciate Diana’s analysis of these statistics. Perhaps the problem is that in the public imagination “religious” is now equated to “political” – and not in the good sense of engagement in the polis. The trouble I see is in people’s retreat into private, individual experience vs. the hard work of praying with people that are unlikely and unliked. What we need is an honest conversation about our political differences and a commitment to place the value of love over that of being correct.

Peter Pearson

It may be very important for us to be clear about what is in decline here. Is it the faith of Jesus or the institutions that are in decline? I would be very interested to see if there is a difference and what the implications of those differences are. Perhaps our formal structures are so badly compromised that they deserve to go away because of their inability to live into the bold and courageous vision offered to us in the Scriptures. Maybe things like the New Monastic movement offer more grace at this time in history and maybe we have become so bogged down with administration that we forget what the church really is. I see this as a moment of amazing opportunity for anyone willing to step up.

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