I originally posted this on February 26th. I am re-posting it to include a note from the United Methodist News Service (UMNS) – see “Pew study raises questions for Methodist leaders”. I would think that the questions in the article are for all Methodists, not just the leaders. The other thing that I think we need to be concerned with is a focus which builds the church but not the faith.
If you have not already do so, please read or glance through the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Life survey (“U. S. Religious Landscape”). Let us start by noting that most of the people indicated that they had some sort of belief system (not necessarily Christian). Just a bit of 89% of the respondents indicated that they were affiliated with some sort of religion. In itself, that’s good.
But it is the breakdown of the numbers that is really interesting. First, the survey data indicates that only 51.3% of the respondents indicated that they were Protestant. Second, 28% of the respondents indicated that they had left the faith in which they were raised.
Point to consider – what does that little tidbit tell us about the nature of our church? I have been of the thought that many traditional or mainline religions always felt that the children of the church, those who attended Sunday school, were the future. This piece of information confirms that notion is not a good idea.
They also noted in the survey that 44% of the respondents had changed affiliations, either joining another denomination or leaving the church entirely. 16% of the respondents (and 1 in 4 of those between 18 and 29) indicated that they were no longer affiliated with any church. This reflects the Barna study that I mentioned in “The Lost Generation” last October.
I have also pointed out that the policies of some of our churches are driving away our youth (see “We Are Eating Our Seed Corn”).
Point to consider – I think it is okay that people change church from the one they grow up in to another one. That is the nature of growing up and finding yourself (I wasn’t interviewed but I would have been included in the group that had changed denominations). What we have to think about is why are some many young people leaving the church altogether?
This brings me to the other point. The survey broke down Protestant into Evangelical, Mainline, and Historically Black churches. They do, in the first chapter of the report, give a more detailed breakdown of each of these groups. But I struggle with how they defined evangelical and mainline traditions. The report reads,
churches within the evangelical Protestant tradition share certain religious beliefs (such as the conviction that personal acceptance of Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation), practices (such as an emphasis on bringing other people to the faith) and origins (including separatist movements against established religious institutions). In contrast, churches in the mainline Protestant tradition share other doctrines (such as a less exclusionary view of salvation), practices (such as a strong emphasis on social reform) and origins (such as long-established religious institutions). Meanwhile, churches in the historically black Protestant tradition have been uniquely shaped by the experiences of slavery and segregation, which put their religious beliefs and practices in a special context.
It is interesting that Methodism was classified as mainline but we were once an evangelical church. I wonder what happened?
Finally, the report does not indicate the nature of the churches. Since the survey was on who we are more than what we do, I would not expect such a discussion. But when there is a shift from one denomination to another, why did the people shift? What type of church were they involved in before the shift and what type of church are they involved in after the shift? When the people left the church altogether, why did they leave?
Those are the questions that we need to concern ourselves with. Too many churches are bottom-lined driven, and I included churches who are growing as well as those who are losing members. They are all concerned with bringing people into the church. How are they doing this?
In a national news report on this survey, people at one of the growing churches were interviewed. A glance into the congregation showed “theater-type” seats. Photos taken during a worship service showed a video screen with the words for the song on it with a “rock and roll” style band playing the music on what one would presume is the altar. Now, I have no problem with modern music and it is probably cheaper to put the music on a video screen rather than buy hymnals or print pages for the worshippers to read from. But these same pictures did not show a cross. The center of our worship, or at least I thought the center of our worship, is the cross. We are in Lent right now (and I think that is one reason why the survey was released); we are working towards Easter and the meaning of the empty tomb and the Cross. Why is not part of the worship service? What message can be given?
And finally,78% of the respondents said that they were Christian. But yet we still have poverty and homelessness in this country. Racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination seem to be on the rise. Our response to problems is often made out of fear. We may say that we are a Christian country (that’s what the survey says!) but are we?
The survey was informative but like so many things, in answering one question, other questions are asked. And those new questions are the ones we need to find the answers to.