Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dropping Out of Church

According to a report I heard on the radio, The drop out rate from Christianity, all of it from fundamentalist to liberal, among people aged 15 to 29 is 60%. That's right, sixty percent. If that was a school district, entire schools would be closing down and mayors would be declaring martial law.

There are a lot of very existential issues behind this statistic for us to ponder.

Why is this? The radio report cites a number of reasons, but the primary reason is one I've thought about for a long time. Kids live in a world dominated by radical changes in science and technology that affect all of us personally. Christianity carries with it a huge amount of supernatural content that becomes more and more of a problem, if not an outright liability, in an age where mechanical explanations for natural phenomena continue to have dramatic success.

Another big reason is cultural and social changes. The younger generations are comfortable in a much more cosmopolitan world than the rest of us older folks are. I've observed this myself. They move through a world of myriad cultural differences with an easy unselfconsciousness that I find astonishing (I was born in Civil Rights era Texas where EVERYONE was very anxiously self conscious about all kinds of differences). Teh Gay, which is tearing churches apart, is not an issue at all for most of the kids, even for those who consider themselves to be conservative (a difference I've also noted over the years teaching).

Apparently, most younger people's experience of church is one of constraint, backwardness, and superstition.

Do we think this whole Christian thing is worth keeping? Is there a distinction between the Christian faith and the Christian religion? Most churches would say "no," but are they right? I think not. I don't think what could be called Christendom, that whole spectrum of cultural and institutional identities around the Christian Evangel, has much of a future. I can foresee a near future in which the historic and not-so-historic churches will be as past as the religion of ancient Egypt. Will Christianity survive the loss of its institutions? Should it survive? Maybe, but it may continue in forms that might be hard for us to recognize as Christian or even as religious. What's worth saving and what's worth discarding? Yes, God is eternal, but we of a more universalist bent proclaim a God who is beyond any one religion, and beyond religion itself. Does God worry about Christianity surviving? Should He? Should we?

Do we Christian progressives have a future? Perhaps, but only as small mammals in a world dominated by huge flesh-eating dinosaurs. The right and the fundamentalists seem to have successfully copyrighted Christianity. It is their terms that dominate all of the public debate about the faith these days. It seems we shall have to make our way between a throwback to 19th century Positivism that's far more zealous today, or a throwback to late Medieval Christianity that's become more legalistic and crazier.

I love my Episcopal parish with its 1821 Federal style church and its high church liturgy. I love the heavy silver Victorian processional cross in the sacristy. I love our magnificent choir singing Mass settings by Palestrina and Monteverdi. I love the Book of Common Prayer. I love what all the congregations I've belonged to have done for their larger communities. I love all the remarkable and generous people I've known through the Church for decades. And yet, I cannot help but feel that our days are numbered.

I think our future will ultimately be in house-churches, and even in small lefty churches that meet in the back of a bar like this one near where I live.

So, what do you think?


Speaking of small mammals in a world dominated by huge flesh-eating dinosaurs, our parish is getting threats from a far-right terrorist group (apparently it's one of those groups that murders abortion providers). We haven't exactly been singled out, but we are one of a number of gay-friendly congregations getting hate mail and threats to our staff and to some of our parishoners (not me, I get enough hate and abuse from the trolls on Thinking Anglicans and Fr. Harris' blog). The FBI has been contacted.


Jay Simser said...

Check out the writings of Bishop John Shelby Spong. He has a vision of Christianity that you might approve of. He too thinks Christianity needs to change.

it's margaret said...

"Is there a distinction between the Christian faith and the Christian religion?" Yes. A big difference. The faith is grounded in the Gospel and is lived (God willing). The religion part is ever changing, from generation to generation. The religion part is what we do when we gather.

"Will Christianity survive the loss of its institutions?" Maybe. Maybe not. I appreciate the AA model of management and institutionalization... Capon wrote a book on reworking the institutional church, sorry I don't remember the title. I will find it if you like... However, the Gospel will always survive. Call it Christian or not....

"Should it survive?" Not without radical reformation. We are too hooked in to power and money.

"What's worth saving and what's worth discarding?" Baptism --because every people have a rite of incorporation --it's important, telling the story, eating together, and loving the world, the whole world.

--that's just my brief take, after a crisp Saturday having trimmed my garden in to winter shape with my kitchen scissors because I packed the garden tools already....

Counterlight said...

Good answer Margaret.

JCF said...

Do we Christian progressives have a future? Perhaps, but only as small mammals in a world dominated by huge flesh-eating dinosaurs.

Heh-heh, I LOVE this analogy (from experience, we know who comes out on top. Yes, yes: dinosaurs became birds. Still.)


I know this will sound terribly selfish, but as far as the *institution* of the Church (Gothic, Palestrina, the BCP, etc) I really only care that it last as long as *I* do.

Gospel values (in a nutshell, self-sacrificial, unconditional Love, for ALL of Creation), on the other hand, I hope survives "while the Lord tarry." ;-)

Counterlight said...

I did indeed mean "dinosaur" in the fullest sense of that word.

I too hope that the Episcopal Church survives me, if only for a little while. I hope it will still be around when it comes time for me to join my fathers and mothers.

Ciss B said...
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Ciss B said...

I enjoyed reading your piece, and feel you're right - the churches will not survive unless we make major changes. Your questions and thoughts on all the churches today is something I've been reading about in Phyllis Tickle's book on the subject, as well as a part of Barabara Brown Taylor's The Preaching Life. Your thoughts on this has brought about some really good discussion, thanks, Doug.

Tristan Alexander said...

This gives me some hope for a brighter future! Christianity as a small private thing would be MUCH better in my oppinion than what it is now or what it has been!
Maybe those nearly mythical "good christians" will be the only ones left and that might redeame the whole religion.

Counterlight said...

Strange as it may seem, I actually agree with Tristan. My one caveat is that as the Christian religion shrinks, the more and more it becomes dominated by its lunatic fringe. I think we are seeing that now. As the reasonable and stable regular or sporadic church-goers leave, the fanatics are left in charge with no checks upon them. The Vatican is piling up the sandbags getting ready to withstand another long siege by modernity as Roman Catholic numbers shrink dramatically around the world.

it's margaret said...

...I think I know what Tristan means... but, I am getting stuck because Christianity can never be a 'private' thing --because there is nothing private in being a member of Christ's Body... A Christian can't be a Christian all by one's self. It is a faith/experiece/way shared by the whole Communion of Saints.

Tristan, could you please expand what you are meaning by private?

Counterlight said...

I think what Tristan means is that Christianity would no longer play such an overwhelming and determining role in the public forum. No more state church, de jure or de facto. No more Constantinian imperial cult. No more talk of a "Christian nation" in the USA or any other country.

it's margaret said...

Ok. I agree.

Tristan Alexander said...

Yes, what Doug said AND I mean private as in, YOU are a Christian and you can belive what you want and NOT push it on ANYONE else!

Instead of being what most Christians in my experience are and have been, people who TALK about their "faith" and Jesus this and the Bible that, but live NOTHING like that should intail, but being people who LIVE what Jesus actualy supposedly taught! Love, non judgment of others etc!

Murdoch Matthew said...
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Murdoch Matthew said...

There's a useful quote on today's Episcopal Café:

'Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of “Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America,” writes: “We’re increasingly seeing the human as essentially spiritual and gradually giving up on the Judeo-Christian idea of the person in the afterlife.”'

What does the church offer besides community, music, art, and tradition? An invisible friend names Jesus and eternal life. Things hard to maintain without a supporting social structure (you can believe all sorts of things if your community keeps telling you that you're right).

Human beings are 'spiritual' in the sense that they're story-telling creatures, whose reality is encoded and defined in language. We've learned to distinguish the created realities of fiction from the realities backed by evidence. We need community-building stories. Christians must start with their tradition, but it's losing credibility in the culture -- what parts of it can be saved as we move on?