If Not Religion to Teach Us, WHAT ELSE IS THERE?


by Craig Bennett*

As we’ve seen for the past few decades in this country, congregations in mainstream Christian churches have been shrinking at an accelerating rate. Given that my own long-standing reaction to any sort of formal church services has been little more than boredom, I could easily accept the possibility that more and more people were experiencing the same thing. But I also knew that the answer was not that simple. People stop going to church for a variety of reasons, but the failure to be adequately entertained should hardly be prominent among them. Why, then, were so many not only abandoning formal, organized religious services, but also deciding not to pass the habit of regular church attendance along to their children? Exactly what has changed to bring this about?

Several years ago, this curiosity drew me to a special showing at a local theater of a documentary film titled Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore. It was produced by Thom and Joni Schultz, a couple who operate a business that supplies religious educational materials to churches. The Schultzes had long been interested in the question of what’s behind the diminishing influence and appeal of mainstream religion in American life and have researched and written much regarding it. After viewing the film, I picked up a copy of the companion book, which bears the same title as the film. Although it’s aimed primarily at an audience of clergy and religious educators, I found in the Schultzes’ research many clues to understanding this growing trend.

Somewhat surprisingly, what tops the list of reasons for non-attendance at church was that those responding to the Schultzes’ survey “felt ‘judged’ by others” in the church. The Schultzes cite a study contained in Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman’s book UnChristian indicating that “judgmental” is a label applied to Christians by eighty-seven percent of Americans. Anything from homosexuality to tobacco use may earn the disapproval or outright condemnation of an individual church member or a whole congregation.

Next on the list of objections is the “feeling of being lectured.” This, understandably, gave those who mentioned it the feeling that the church didn’t really care about what they thought or the questions for which they hoped religion might provide an answer. The church apparently had its own agenda, and that was all that mattered.

The third objection the Schultzes note is that “active church members are hypocrites.” Unfortunately, the Schultzes admit, most religious services imply a standard of holiness that is realistically beyond the reach of most humans, and people are simply discouraged by being confronted week after week by unrealistic expectations that even church leaders themselves are hardly capable of meeting.

The fourth and final reason why people don’t attend church, the Schultzes found, has two components. The first is the complaint that the prevailing image of God promoted by the contemporary Christian church is “irrelevant to the lives of most contemporary Americans.” But this is followed by the admission that those who don’t attend church would still like to know that God is real and that he (she, it, they) cares about them as individuals.

Former Catholic priest Michael Morwood, in his book It’s Time, may have expressed it more accurately when he wrote that increasingly large numbers of Christians are no longer participating formally in their religion because it respects neither their intelligence nor their education. This trend is likely to keep growing, he continues, as long as those in charge of the religious institutions being abandoned fail to understand how serious the situation really is. And this is something else to which I can relate perhaps more easily than I would like.

The Schultzes assert that a majority of people really have no experience of God during an average church service. Perhaps this failure is a function of the “deep theological trivia” that, the Schultzes claim, appears to be of interest to many preachers. They suggest that people are actually looking for something much simpler.

This is why I was heartened by one conclusion in particular that the Schultzes reached in the course of their research. Citing a survey by George Gallup, Jr. and D. Michael Lindsay, they noted that sixty-four percent of those surveyed are open to the idea of engaging in faith-based pursuits somewhere other than in church. Such a movement appears to be catching on, at least in my own neck of the woods. I’ve attended a few such gatherings in taverns and restaurants where, under the unimposing leadership of a local minister, people enjoyed a beer, a glass of wine, or a meal while discussing all sorts of things from a predominantly spiritual perspective. Sometimes there had been a theme or topic for the evening, and sometimes not. In either case, I was pleasantly surprised at how wide-ranging the discussion became, the variety of viewpoints held by participants, and the open-mindedness of the clergyman moderator. In Dr. Harry Serio’s Spiritual Exploration Project, for example, participants are invited to present and/or facilitate related topics of their own choosing.

And why should I, who number myself among the “nones” (religiously unaffiliated), consider all of this of any real importance? Among their other functions, churches exist in order to teach people to be good. Through sermons, Bible study, and the topics generally dealt with in Sunday schools, they promote values like honesty, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, all of which appear to be in rapidly diminishing supply in contemporary America. What other agencies or institutions do we presently have that do this, especially as one of the primary reasons for their existence? And if we lose church, what will we have left? What else is there?   

{Sources: Schultz, Thom and Joni: Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore; Morwood, Michael: It’s Time]

[*-Craig H. Bennett, author of Nights on the Mountain and More Things in Heaven and Earth, available at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and the Firefly bookstore in Kutztown, PA]

More News from Boyertown
I'm interested (1)
I disagree with this
This is unverified