Christians Anonymous: Trends on the Spiritual, but not Religious

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Editor’s note: This is the first of a five-part series on church identity trends.

Faith in America has taken a few strange turns in the last few decades. What is commonly understood as being “religious” or “spiritual” has changed dramatically. And the data is surprising.

At first, it was heralded that religion would soon die out in the West: with the progress of humanity, the need for a “god of the gaps” would diminish, and materialism (the belief that everything in existence has a physical form) would dominate. As such, the public square “secularized.” Whereas at one time you couldn’t even open a bank account unless you were a member of a nearby church. Today, when applying for a job, it’s often, “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to personal beliefs, much less what kind of church you attend.

With institutional religion in the decline, it seemed like this secularization narrative was accurate. A massive Pew Research study released in 2015 documented the “rise of the nones” from 16% to 23% in a mere seven years. Nones, those who who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular,” overtook both Catholics (20.8%) and mainline Protestants (14.7%). This study ostensibly supported the idea that traditional religion was disappearing and those who didn’t believe in anything were growing in number. But that was only partially true.

The reality is more nuanced. A few factors and clarifications were needed. First, while those labeled as “nones” included agnostics and atheists, nones also included those who would describe themselves as “spiritual” and said that religion played an important role in their lives, even if that religion was privatized completely. In fact, of those within the “none” category, atheists and agnostics are still a minority.

Perhaps the most recent major example of being “spiritual” but unaffiliated with any organized religion is Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.

After posting online that he was celebrating Christmas, Zuckerberg was asked by a commenter, “Aren’t you an atheist?” Zuckerberg responded: “No. I was raised Jewish and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important.”

Many businesses like Facebook and Google offer meditation classes, although its leaders emphasize the word “Buddhism” is never mentioned, and such classes are billed as increasing one’s emotional intelligence, which has been tied to profitability.

Second, while organized religion in America has seen decline, it must be noted that the decline is mostly seen among liberal mainline churches. Evangelical Protestants remain relatively stable at 25.2% of the population. Given the growth of the American population, there are more Evangelical Protestants now than in 2007.

As reported in the Washington Post, another recent study led by David Millard Haskell correlated church growth with conservative doctrine. Churches that held to a more literal understanding of the Bible, for example, were much more likely to be part of a growing church. According to the study, 83 percent of church attenders and 93% of clergy from growing churches agreed with the statement: “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb,” while only 67 percent of worshipers and 56 percent of clergy members from declining churches agreed to the statement.

This data runs against much thinking over the last 50 years concerning what was needed to see churches grow. As Haskell notes, many liberal theologians and clergy saw the secularization trends at work and argued that churches would only grow if they “abandoned their literal interpretation of the Bible and transformed along the changing times.”

John Shelby Spong, a U.S. bishop in the Episcopalian Church, published his widely-praised book, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die,” arguing for such changes. Although the work was applauded by scholars and leaders in the mainline church when it was published, opinion is now changing on the accuracy of Spong’s thesis. Growing churches tend to have a high view of the Bible.

So the question remains. Is secularism and the privatization of belief on the rise or is Bible-believing Christianity growing? The answer, of course, is both. What’s really disappearing is the middle ground: those who might be called cultural Christians who attend church or appreciate the Ten Commandments only because it was culturally expected or socially advantageous, as in applying for a loan.

Yet, even those who attend a more theologically conservative church still tend to bear some of these characteristics. With the availability of viewing or listening to church services and sermons remotely through podcasts or online webcasts, church attenders have the option to worship in the comfort of their own homes. While admitting that something is lost from not being on location, those who use these online features often find them a viable substitute. The concept is appealing: worship on your schedule, at your preference, through the pastor or worship band of your choice that week.

However, others are concerned that such a passive approach to church is detrimental in the long run. Even those who attend a worship service once or twice a month demonstrate the current understanding of church that mirrors the larger trends: organized religion, including a weekly worship service, can be a good way to complement one’s faith, but ultimately isn’t necessary to have a fulfilling and growing spiritual experience. Hence, remote worship or sporadic church attendance has become widely normalized.

Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, has argued that even those who are considered committed attenders of a church contribute to the decline by inconsistent attendance: “If the frequency of attendance changes, then attendance will respond accordingly. For example, if 200 members attend every week the average attendance is, obviously, 200. But if one-half of those members miss only one out of four weeks, the attendance drops to 175.”

This subtle and often unnoticed phenomenon can severely affect attendance rates. Continuing his example, Rainer notes, “No members left the church. Everyone is still relatively active in the church. But attendance declined over 12 percent because half the members changed their attendance behavior slightly… And leaders in the church are often left scratching their heads because the behavioral change is so slight, almost imperceptible. We really don’t notice when someone who attends four times a month begins to attend only three times a month. Nor do we typically catch it when the twice-a-month attendee becomes a once-a-month attendee.”

Such shifts are often attributed to the privatization of faith. “You don’t need to go to church to find God” might be the best summary of this trend. Yet there is a sense of missing community remaining, even among churches who encourage their attendees to participate in small groups during the week. Randy Frazee, in his book The Connecting Church, considers the data on such groups:

“Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow has found that small groups mainly ‘provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others. The social contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Come if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone’s opinion. Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied.’ In Overcoming Loneliness in Everyday Life, two Boston psychiatrists… suggest that … groups ‘fail to replicate the sense of belonging we have lost. Attending weekly meetings, dropping in and out as one pleases, shopping around for a more satisfactory or appealing group — all of these factors work against the growth of true community.’”

What actions should be taken to counteract this consumerist approach to faith and build a community that not only participates in but takes ownership of their community’s growth?

A.S. Payne and Colin Marshall argue in their book, The Trellis and the Vine, that a balance between organic, spontaneous growth, and clear, structural organizational guidelines must exist for any long term growth of a community. Many traditional churches emphasize the organizational aspects of community with statements of faith, liturgies, defined leadership and member obligations, routines, and some kind of process for ministry development or personnel promotion.

Other “attractional” churches which see high growth in initial stages emphasize spontaneity and avoid established roles within the church. Yet such churches tend to fall apart and decline after the first “innovative” generation is gone. The church never stabilizes, since its stability centered on the dynamic personalities of its founders. However, churches that can find a balance between innovation and stability, spontaneity and organizational structure, can provide a place that allows for both community growth (what attractional churches aim for) as well as community stability (what traditional churches aim for).

Over the next month, four areas of church “structure” will be considered in relation to community growth, and current trends in these areas will be given a closer look, including the role of denominations, church government, membership, and discipline within a church community.

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