Saturday, January 12, 2008

Face-Based Religion

“God is in His Heaven, and the hypocrites are in His church.” Now before you send me hate mail about being anti-Christian, I am only paraphrasing the results of a LifeWay Research survey on church affiliation. LifeWay is part of the Southern Baptist Convention headquartered in Nashville, TN.

LifeWay surveyed the 20% of Americans who identify themselves as unchurched. Unchurched means that they have not gone to church, synagogue, or mosque in the last six-months. Seventy-two percent of the unchurched believe in God or a Higher Power, and the same number complains that religious institutions are full of hypocrites. Hence my opening line.

The number of unchurched Americans is growing. In 2004 only 17% of Americans claimed to be unchurched, a three percent rise in three years is significant. What is happening?

I suggest that there is a general outgrowing of organized religion by more and more Americans. For example, over half of those surveyed said, “Christianity is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people.” We want to love God and one another, but religion no longer seems to be the place where we learn how.

And while 52% of the unchurched believe that Jesus “died and came back to life,” 61% believe that there is no real difference among the various gods worshipped by the peoples of the world. While it used to be true that when people used the word “God” they meant the God of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, today “God” is generic. In other words, just because Jesus came back from dead doesn’t mean I have to stop chanting Hari Krishna. The difference between Yahweh, Jesus, and the elephant-headed Ganesha is about as significant to people as the difference between Coke and Pepsi.

This has got to be a huge problem for clergy whose success is measured by butts in the pews. Fewer and fewer people are drawn to conventional religious settings. The survey doesn’t break the unchurched down by prior affiliation so we can’t say which religion is suffering from the unchurched phenomenon the most, but I think it is safe to say that Jews are among the most “unchurched” and Muslims are among the least.

The usual response to this is to figure out some way to get people back into the pews, but I prefer to imagine alternatives to pews altogether. I suspect retreats, conversation cafes, and other venues for face-to-face dialogue and contemplative practice are going to thrive as the numbers of unchurched grow. People may be outgrowing organized religion but we will always need a place to sit and talk. Church no longer provides this for many people. And the more faceless every life becomes the more we will need face-based encounters. I have nothing to suggest just yet, but I am working on it. If you have a suggestion, please share it with us.


Vania said...

I think buildings and rules and regulations may go by the way-side but mans inner need to connect with the Divine never will.

And thus, it was written by the prophets Jim Henson and Frank Oz,

"A thousand years ago, this land was green and good. Until The Crystal cracked. For a single piece was lost - a Shard of The Crystal. Then strife began and two new races appeared: the cruel Skeksis; the gentle Mystics."

In "reality" the Skeksis and Mystics were not two distinct races (one who was wholly evil and the other wholly good) but one race that had been split apart. In time, a Jen (cute little elf like dude) came along, replaced the missing shard and something totally unexpected happened. The Mystics didn't take power back from the Skeksis, the two beings melded into each other and became one.

I took my kids to see the Dark Crystal when it first came out in theaters (which tells you just how old I am). When the movie was over, my six year old said "You know that was about G-d and people don't you Momma?"

So, perhaps thousands of years ago the crystal cracked and the division between G-d and man took place. The prophet Moses "Henson" told about the schism while the prophet "Isaiah" Oz told how it would end - for Messianics (like me) and Christians, it ended with the death of Yeshua. Our freedom from rigid laws made by men began with Yeshua's freedom from death - the ultimate separation. And man and G-d were reconciled.

So maybe in 2000 years people will read The Dark Crystal and with the absolute faith of a 6 year old say "this is about people and G-d". And maybe they'll realize since the story was already written that the breach had already been mended. And the fact that houses of "worship" no longer exist won't matter at all.

wtgelfman said...

My wife tells me ( I am unchurched in soda) that there are unfathonable differences between Coke and Pepsi.
The studies show that the more soda one drinks (no difference between brands) the more the butts fill the pews.

Stuart said...

In his 1972 collection of essays "Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown", Alan Watts looks at the problem of declining church attendance.

His solution, for what its worth, was to re-open churches as 'growth centres', with the recommendations:

1. Services should be focussed on meditation and contemplation (though with light spirit - not grim concentration);

2. Strip the church of pews and have the floor carpeted and cushioned.

3. Abandon petitionary prayers

4. Short period of training for existing clergy on meditative rituals

Aron said...

I identify with what I often call an earth-based Jewish practice. Basically, this means to me that I feel inspired by Torah and the Jewish tradition, but never connect that to going to a specific building to find my connect to other humans or non-human nature.

Although I infrequently visit a local minyan, I tend to honor the holidays either in my home our somewhere outside. To me, the divine appears to us most authentically where you seen it, not necessarily in a predecide place. Not everyone sees God in the same ways or places.

So with this in mind, I've been doing these hikes where along the path, I discuss lore associated with the Hebrew month. I also try to relate the natural cycles in Israel to what's going on here in Ohio. Although I've had mixed success, I'm trying to address how I connect to divine and see who else might share it.

Basically, I don't think there's a one-size fits all religious or spiritual experience.

AaronHerschel said...

I wonder how long this butts in the pews things has been going on. Do you think the Romans ran studies comparing church attendance to coloseum attendance? Of course, they had a solid number devout christians in both places....

AaronHerschel said...

I'm fascinated by vania's Dark Crystal post and, in fact, I believe it's not so far fetched as one might suppose. Powerful stories are the lifeblood of human perception. They shape us, often for far longer and in far more fundamental ways than objective reality. Indeed, what is "reality" without its attendant story?

In any case, the adaptation of popular writing into the theological canon has already happened a few times over: Dante and Milton being operative examples. But the really interesting thing, for me, is that once we recognize the incredible power and importance of storytelling, of mythmaking, there's no need to worry over the historicity of the tales anymore. Which is not to say that historical bible scholarship is in error. Simply to acknowledge that it does not and never will matter whether or not Moses talked to a bush or what freak weather conditions caused the red sea (reed sea?) to part.

The stories are true regardless of the facts, and they are true in precisely the same way the Dark Crystal is true. They speak to a perceptual reality, to a felt and human truth that trumps the purely empirical. Religion and fiction both rely on our willing suspension of disbelief. That is, on a deeply emotional and personal investment in story and meaning making that, at its best, transforms and illuminates everything.

vania said...


Thank you. I really thought I'd come back here to have a good laugh (or a moment of enlightenment) over whatever Rabbi Rami had to say today and that would be that. I hesitated to read any of the comments to this post for fear of the "ripping" I thought I'd find over comparing the truths of religion to the truths of a really fantastic fairy tale.

But amazingly, you and I are on the same page - at least for this issue.

Does it really, really matter (in the grand scheme of things) if the truths we live by and that make this world a fit place for human beings to dwell in are based on words written in stone? I really don't think so.

For instance, where are the stone tablets? Why was Yeshua taken back to heaven? If G-d gave Moshe the tablets, you'd think they would still exist somewhere - like in the Ark of the Covenant. And since Yeshua rose from the grave and is still alive, why didn't he stick around. Wouldn't it be better for everyone who derives their belief systems from Judeao Christian origins if we had both the tablets and Yeshua? It would definitely end a lot of conflict.

I think no matter what was written about either Moses or Yeshua really isn't the issue. The issue is what have we learned from them and do we have enough "faith" to believe?

In the end, it's going to boil down to faith. Personally, I don't have enough faith NOT to believe. :-)