A Brief Reflection on the Pew Study

The bombshell on the "religious Internet" this week was a new study from the Pew Forum, looking at trends in religious identification ("The Religious Landscape Study").  You can dig through the data to your heart's content here.

In short, the two big takeaways are that lots of people are leaving Christianity for no religion, and that Catholicism is not doing appreciably better than the Mainline (and even the Evangelicals are showing cracks).  Lots and lots of people have expounded on these topics and broken them down in various ways, so much so that I don't really have much to add.  Instead, I want to talk a little bit about the notion of leaving and staying in a religion.

It is true that I will attend religious services on Sunday in the same religious tradition that I was raised in.  But to say that I have "remained" a Catholic implies a straight line from being baptized to the present day, and that is simply not true.  My arc is something like this:
  • Baptized Catholic
  • Really liked going to Church and singing my little voice off when I was in grade school
  • Thought Catholicism was stupid and ignorant in junior high
  • Fell in love with the intellectual traditions of the faith in late high school and mostly held on to that as everything else collapses around me in college (with a brief flirtation with Eastern Orthodoxy thrown in there)
  • Joined the Dominicans
  • Realized that there was no way I was ready to be a celibate religious for the rest of my life, and left the Dominicans
  • Went through a period of disillusionment with faith in general in the aftermath of leaving
  • Found it again when I joined a Jesuit parish in Philly, and kept it (mostly) through my time in San Francisco (where, by the way, I began the process of going from being a conservative-ish Catholic to a liberal one).
  • Went through whatever it is I went through in the last two years, as chronicled on this blog.
My point in going through all of that is to say that I understand why people leave religious traditions generally, or Catholicism in particular.  There were at least three points that I easily could have abandoned religion altogether, or made a change to some other group.  The reasons it played out the way it did at each phase are complicated, and, more importantly, different in each phase.  And I suspect I am not alone in going through a roller coaster of commitment and disillusionment.  The difference between the people that leave and the people that stay is not as great as one might think.

Another thought occurred to me with regard to the "nones."
Evangelical Christianity gets many things wrong, but one of the things it gets 100% right is its insistence that finding and maintaining a personal relationship with God and Jesus is the foundation of being a Christian.  There is a notion (unspoken and officially rejected, but nevertheless present) in Catholicism, and I suspect in many churches of the Mainline, that this personal relationship can be replaced with a relationship to the institution of the church.  That's fool's gold.  If a person does not have some sort of encounter with God and Jesus, and has some personal connection to the Christian message, then their continued presence in the Christian fold is subject to either (1) some sort of social pressure against leaving or being seen as a non-Christian, or (2) not having anything better to do during the relevant period of time.  And both of those things are becoming increasingly unlikely for anyone.

Think about it this way.  A person like Rachel Held Evans leaves her Evangelical upbringing because of its positions on women, LGBT people, evolution, etc.  But she comes back to Christianity, ultimately, because it is clear that the message of Jesus means something very personal to her (as anyone who has read her excellent book can attest).  A similarly situated version of Evans without that personal connection might leave the Evangelical church for the same reasons, but then would never come back to any practice of Christianity.  After all, one can be in favor of LGBT or women's rights just fine without going to church or being a Christian.  What's the motivation?

This strikes me as a very important lesson for progressive Christian churches.  It is true that many of these "nones" and/or Millennials will not give a hearing to churches that reject LGBT equality, or gender equality.  But exactly zero of them will join a church because that church has the right positions on those issues.  If you want to reach out to those people, you have to find a way to help them, support them, and encourage them find Jesus on their own.  Only then will they join your church.  

I get the sense that some people in the progressive Mainline or progressive Catholicism think that simply "getting it right" on LGBT questions or gender issues is going to cause folks to come flocking back.  "Getting it right" is necessary but not close to sufficient.  Once that barrier is out of the way, then comes the hard work of figuring out how to help people to encounter Jesus.  And, in this, there is much to be learned, from a process standpoint, from both from the Evangelical world and from the Emergent church world (which, itself, formed from the Evangelical world).  Only when that is accomplished will numbers go back up. 

Along those lines, there are some folks who you are not going to be able to reach.  Some people are simply not interested in religion, and some people are too wounded from their formative religious experiences to be willing to take a fresh look at faith.  I think there is no question that some of the current "nones" could find their way to (or back to) Christianity in the right circumstances, but some of them won't.  

One should be realistic--Christianity is going to be an smaller portion of the U.S. population in the coming years.  That is going to require painful decisions about long-standing institutions, real estate, and other commitments.  No one is going to be immune, and there is no magic formula that can exempt a church from these realities.  But Christianity is still over 70%, a super majority, of the U.S. population.  Might it become 50% or 40%?  Maybe.  Is it going to become five random folks huddling in the corner?  No.  And this down-sizing just might be a spur to get over old and irrelevant feuds, re-focus on what's important, and become stronger.

Think about it this way.  St. Francis's first assignment from God was to "rebuild my Church, which has fallen into ruin."  To fulfill that command, he found a small abandoned chapel, which has since become known as the Portiuncula, to fix up.  At the height of the Middle Ages, when Christianity was at its apex of power and influence, there were the remnants of failed church plants all over the place.  And one of these became the basis of a world-wide movement that changed Christianity forever.  No doubt there were people prior to Francis who walked by that abandoned church and saw it as a sign of the decline of Christianity, and despaired.  But the ruin always leads to a rebuilding, just as Jesus taught that death leads to new life.  

That's what this religion is ultimately about--renewal in places, and in ways, where we otherwise wouldn't even hope for it.  Like Francis, all we can do is pick up a stone and try to rebuild where we can.       


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