Is Faith on the Decline in the U.S.? Yes … and no

Courtesty of Ross Douthat’s column (well worth a read, by the way), I came across this fascinating study. It contends that religious faith is not diminishing in the U.S. — rather, it’s nominal faith that is on the decline. The authors contend that it is those who loosely hold to their beliefs that are increasingly letting go of the traditional ways of expressing their faith.

Their first piece of evidence: a chart that shows that the percentage has remained essentially unchanged of those who have a “strong affiliation” to their faith — it has hovered around 40% for the past 25 years. During that same period of time, those who don’t have a strong affiliation have dropped from the mid-50s to just above 40%. And those who claim no affiliation has doubled in 25 years.

Likewise, church attendance is dropping among those who “attend sometimes.” Those who claim to “never attend” a church service now is a group that includes more than 20% of the population. But those who attend multiple times a week — while it is a small percentage of the population — is a line on the graph as straight as the lives of the people it represents.

And there are many more insights in the article. Take a look for yourself. It’s well worth it — even if only to look at the charts and what they represent.

And what they represent is fascinating. Yes, religious commitment in the U.S. is diminishing. But it is diminishing among those who are loosely affiliated, not among those who have a strong connection to their faith.

What can this teach those of us who would consider ourselves in the “strong commitment” category? For one (as the authors of the study themselves point out): We are increasingly preaching to the choir. We should expect that, as a general rule, fewer and fewer people in our culture who are not connected to church will consider giving church a chance. For most congregations, the “seeker movement” is over. Or probably should be. If you’re trying to keep your church on the cutting edge, you may only be reaching the religiously-interested-but-disconnected hipster; you’re probably not reaching the not-interested-thank-you hipster.

Which means, of course, that we need to increasingly find ways to engage others on their turf. We should not expect the “not-interested” crowd to come to us; we’ve got to go to them. Which, come to think of it, we should have been doing all along.

I was recently at a Bible study where I was told that one of its newest participants was a teacher, and had gotten connected because their church was so faithful to volunteer at her school. Bonnie noticed (not her real name), and the church’s love and concern for her kids reached her, and she began attending church. She then volunteered for the church’s weekend cafe, and had recently began participating in this small group.

Even though for 5 years now Bonnie has been in what this study would call the “strong affiliation” category — she still is figuring this faith-thing out. One of the passages we read that night at the study was from 1 John. Bonnie had prepared that week, and so had read it. Or thought she had; but instead of reading 1 John, she read from the Gospel of John. When she found that out, she said to all of us: You mean there’s more than one John? D–n! Later, the leader had us turn to Romans, and Bonnie asked, slyly but honestly, Is there more than one Romans?

As our society becomes increasingly secularized, those of us who have been around church for a long time need to extend plenty of grace to those who haven’t. Those who do get connected to church are going to come knowing a lot less about Bible and faith and God. Which to me means that if the Church is going to reach folks outside of the strongly committed segment, we are going to have to ramp up our discipleship and teaching ministries. The days of “feel-good” sermons and “fun-and-games” youth ministry are over. The next generation of believers is going to need much more than that.

And one more thought: We in the Church must first be known for what we are for, not for what we are against. If we are going to reach people with the love of Jesus, then we are going to have to lead with the love of Jesus. I mean: isn’t that what Jesus did? I find it immensely fascinating and instructive that the kinds of people Jesus ticked off were the kinds of people we often try to assuage. And the kinds of people Jesus went out of his way to engage, we often try to avoid. (For example, see Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown in Luke 4; or the next chapter in Luke, where Jesus heals a guy who can’t walk and gets into a row with some religious types; or the next chapter, where those same folks protest the timing of Jesus’ healings; or the next chapter where Jesus heals the kid of a hated occupier, and then lauds his faith; or the next chapter, where Jesus heals a demonized Gentile pagan, and then sends him out as one of the first missionaries. And that’s just 5 chapters in just one of the four gospels. If you need more examples of the ways Jesus interacted with the kinds of people we avoid, and avoided the kinds of people we tend to interact with, keep reading. There’s plenty more material.)

None of this is about criticizing the church, or those who work in it. I deeply value those who give themselves fully to lead and love others. It’s hard work. There are no easy answers. I know. I’ve been there, and I have the t-shirt to prove it (a bunch, in fact).

But it’s time for those of us who are strongly connected to church and faith — for those of who are serious about the call of walking in the way of Jesus — to find ways of engaging a culture that increasingly doesn’t care, and doesn’t know why it should. And it probably will be less about what we do on Sunday mornings, and more about what we do the rest of the week.

You think?

I used to enjoy watching those political debate shows on television. You know the kind; the ones where they line up people on the right and the left (literally and politically), and they proceed to yell at, through, and around each other. For some reason, I used to enjoy that kind of stuff.

Not so much, anymore. Perhaps because I’m getting older. Perhaps because I’m less strident than I used to be. Perhaps because I have experienced enough angry people in real life that I’d rather not sit and watch them on TV, too.

But this week, I found another reason why I no longer enjoy people getting whipped up into a righteous lather: because it doesn’t work. Rare is the person who changes a position on something by being tongue-lashed into it.

I was reminded of this truth by a helpful new book: How to Think by Alan Jacobs, a Christian intellectual (and yes, those 2 words can go together, despite what some intellectuals think, and despite what some Christians think). Jacobs challenges us to actually stop and think about thinking; because, in fact, often that’s not what we do. Often, when we hear something we disagree with: we react; we assume; we pigeon-hole; we rely on categories and catchwords. In short, we do anything but think. Therefore, debates, whether they are on television or simply happen in the classroom or the cubicle, are often about anything but thinking; they are about winning.

In this vein, Jacobs describes how debates happen in the Political Union, a debating society at Yale University. There, the goal is to win, yes; but not by “scoring points.” Instead, the goal is to win someone over to your position. But that’s only one of the goals. There’s a second one: to be won over. That’s right: a debate where you win when you win, but where you also win when you lose.

The first win is described as “breaking someone on the floor” – where you change someone’s mind in the middle of the debate, right there in front of everyone. But the second win also involves a change of mind — yours. This is called “being broken on the floor” — where you are the one who changes your mind, out in the open, for everyone to see.

When members of the Yale Political Union are interviewed as potential society leaders, they are expected to have experience with both kinds of “wins” – changing someone’s mind, and changing their own. For, as a member of the YPU points out: Who, exactly, has perfect political and ethical ideas? Who among us, whatever age or education, knows everything about everything? In other words, why, when faced with truth, should we, unthinkingly, continue to hold onto error?

All of this came to mind today after I happened to watch the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” It’s well worth watching, though it deals with some heavy stuff. (In fact, just a heads-up: if you watch this movie, it will wreck you. At least it did me.)

The movie tells the story of two boys in World War 2 who happen to be on opposite sides of the fence. Literally. Bruno’s father is the commandant of a concentration camp. Shmuel is a boy on the other side of the wire; a Jewish prisoner in that camp. As the movie unfolds, Bruno and his family slowly learn what the camp is all about. Told that Jews are the enemy and that the camp is a legitimate part of the war effort, Bruno has to learn to face the truth as it comes at him in real and personal ways.

In other words, Bruno has to learn how to think. Not take what he’s heard; not simply swallow what he’s told. Bruno grows up as he learns to face what is — and think about what it all means.

Bruno’s naivete and innocence isn’t surprising; after all, he’s only 8. The same can’t be said for the German Church during the same period. History has documented for us how timid and unthinking the Church was in the face of Hitler’s rise. According to James & Marti Hefley, as Hitler’s Nazi Party rode roughshod over his parliamentary opposition, a group of German Christian leaders proclaimed, “We German Protestant Christians accept the saving of our nation by our leader Adolf Hitler as a gift from God’s hand.” They affirmed “unanimously our unlimited fealty to the Third Reich and its leader.” By 1936, even leaders of the “Confessing Church” (congregations who saw some of the wrongs being done) did not protest the requirement that German citizens take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and nothing was said about the increased discrimination against the Jews.

In other words, not thinking is dangerous. Only watching our favorite network is not thinking. Only listening to those we agree with is not thinking. Accepting the party line of our favorite politician or political party is not thinking. Accepting the spin by our favorite commentator, or even our favorite TV preacher, is not thinking.

In fact, I think that those who believe in truth — Big Picture Truth, what we might call “capital-T Truth” — should be the last ones to swallow the lines we are handed by those who have microphones, and instead should be the first to ask: But is that True?

We should do the hard work of listening and learning — as we seek out the Truth that is real, lasting, and available for all of us who are willing to really think about Truth.

Because here’s the thing: Truth never justs stays in your head. It gets lived out. Truth never just shapes how you think; it also changes how you live.

So, how are you living? It’s probably in direct relationship to how you’re thinking.

 

Where has life fishhooked you?

 

Yesterday, I headed out through the garage, on my way to do some work for a friend. As I walked through the garage, I couldn’t miss it. Some kind of wire-y, point-y, fishhook-y kind of think sticking out of a tire on my wife’s van. I pulled on it a bit, but it wasn’t budging.

Dang it!, I thought. Now I’m going to have to deal with this.

So I took it the tire place, and as the guy looked at it, we both had a chuckle: How did that get there? My response: It’s my wife’s van. Must be her great driving!

Since she wasn’t there, and it IS her van, I could say that. But really, who knows how that fishhook thing go in the side wall of her tire?

That’s how life is. We shouldn’t be surprised when life hooks us, but so often we are. Sometimes, the fault is ours. But sometimes, it’s not. I mean, really, fishhooks happen.

What’s your fishhook right now? Maybe it’s cancer, or heart disease. Maybe it’s someone you love who is facing these things. Or maybe they’re facing dementia, or another condition for which there is no cure.

Maybe it’s work that has stuck a hook in you. Or school. Or a relationship. Or an addiction — yours, or someone you love. But somewhere, somehow, if you’re paying attention, there’s at least one thing in your life that has got you hooked.

A counselor recently shared with me a simple truth, but one we so often fail to accept. He said, simply: Life is hard.

Now, most of us get that. We realize life is challenging. Even so, there’s a part of us that keeps expecting it to get better, simpler, easier. But here’s the thing: when you expect life to be easy, and it turns out it’s not (which always ends up being the case), then you’re not sure what to do. You’re left staring at the fishhook, asking, Now what?

In these moments, if you expect life to be easy, you’ll look around for an quick escape hatch. Or someone to blame. Or you’ll just internalize it and blame the universe, or your upbringing, or your spouse — or, if you’re really heady, you might blame God.

But if you accept the premise that life is hard, then, not only are you not surprised when life sticks it to you, you’re also one step closer to dealing with challenges when they come. But let’s be clear: not all approaches to a difficult life have the same outcome.

It occurs to me that, once we accept the premise that life is hard, there are at least 4 ways to face life’s challenges. You can say:

  1. Life is hard … so you numb it.
  2. Life is hard … so you strive to overcome it.
  3. Life is hard … so you avoid it.
  4. Life is hard … but you face it.

The first response deals with life’s difficulties, and promptly looks around for something to deaden the pain. Alcohol, or another drug. TV. Food. Shopping. Mindless web surfing. Mindful web surfing, in an effort to find some one, or some image, to distract the mind. Or any number of other ways to drown out the pain of the world. And today’s sedative can all too easily become tomorrow’s addiction. As the writer Thomas Keating puts it: “Addictions are the ultimate way of distracting oneself from the emotional pain one is unwilling to face.”

The second approach goes the opposite direction. It seeks to overcome the difficulties through personal strength and smarts. It sees the pain and hardship, and says, I got this. It is confident in my ability to overcome through all kinds of methods, both secular and spiritual. Maybe it’s the latest meditation technique or self-help guru. Maybe if I save enough money or work harder. Or maybe if I just believe enough and pray hard enough, my cancer will go away or my relationship will be restored. But all of these approaches have one thing in common: they are about me — trusting that if I just work or pray hard enough, things will get better.

Or how about approach #3? It’s the method that lives out this mantra: When the going gets tough, just go. Leave. Whatever you have to do, get away from the pain and the heartbreak. Don’t climb the mountain; run from it!

This happens when we have a literal pain in the neck, and instead of going to doctor, we just ignore it. But it also happens when we have a relational pain in the neck, and we avoid that, too. Instead of talking with that person, dealing with the issue, we avoid them — and it. I remember a minister of a very influential church telling me once that when he began his ministry, he avoided conflict. He hoped that if he ignored it, it would go away. He pretty quickly learned that avoidance is a pretty lousy approach.

So, if life is hard, and numbing it, or overcoming it, or avoiding it aren’t the answers, what is?

Facing it. Recognizing the challenges of life, this approach chooses not to back down, run away, or self-medicate. Instead, we face the hardships. But not alone, and certainly not in our strength. No, the healthiest life is the one who recognizes life’s challenges and difficulties, and looks them square in the face — and does so, trusting that God is faithful. Shalom (true peace and wholeness) is where we can recognize all the ways that life “fishhooks” us, and then bring those before a God who meets us in the midst of those challenges. Shalom, you see, isn’t the absense of conflict or brokenness; it is the active and deliberate decision to bring those to the God of all grace and mercy.

For we have a God who faced down the reality that life is difficult; that sin is real; that hurt and hate are too often the human condition. And Jesus saw all of that, and he did not avoid it, nor did he numb himself to its reality. Instead, at the cross, he faced it and he overcame it. And because he faced down sin and death, we don’t have to avoid them. And we don’t face them alone. And we certainly don’t have to overcome them ourselves. Instead, in Jesus, we become more then overcomers (Romans 8.37). All because we have a God who overcame, for us.

And recognizing that doesn’t diminish the reality of our challenges. It simply brings hope where we need it most. Right where life is hardest.