Religion in the News: What Does it All Mean?

by Richard Flory

Several news stories about religion in the U.S. have caught my attention over the last couple of weeks, and they each highlight a different lens on what the future may hold for these and other groups, and how the public perceives religion as an enduring (or not) institution in society. First, and this has been a long time coming, the Crystal Cathedral has finally met its demise. After bankruptcy, the sale of the landmark sanctuary to the Orange County Roman Catholic Diocese and now the (somewhat ungraceful) exit of the entire Schuller family, the fate of the formerly iconic megachurch has been sealed. Whatever the future holds, the Crystal Cathedral will no longer enjoy its identity of the past 40 years—a cultural landmark melding Christianity, American consumerism and celebrity.

As the Crystal Cathedral story was making headlines, including on the “CBS This Morning” show (alas, my interview ended up on the digital cutting room floor!), just up the freeway from the Cathedral’s home in Garden Grove, the Los Angeles City Council was working on an important but complex redistricting plan. Buried two-thirds of the way into a recent Los Angeles Times story recounting the final approval of the plan were quotations from two of “several African American pastors” who were in attendance at the City Council meeting. These pastors spoke against the plan as it would, from their point of view, adversely impact the economic growth and development of large swaths of South Los Angeles. In contrast to the Schullers, these pastors were from [Read more…]

Why Do We Go to Church?

Our own Richard Flory recently appeared on the illustrious Research on Religion podcast discussing why people go to church.  Here’s the summary of his interview… check it out!

A recent Barna Group survey found that roughly 60% of regular churchgoers could not remember any new religious insight from the last time they attended churc, and 50% could not remember any insight from the previous week’s service.  So why bother gettin’ out of bed, gettin’ on your Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and trudging down to the local congregation?  We take up this issue with Dr. Richard Flory, associate research professor of sociology at the University of Southern California and director of research at the USC Center for Religion & Civic Culture.  Based upon a blog post he wrote on this topic, Richard speculates that it might not be the spiritual message that lures us to church service, but rather the communal aspect of worshiping together that draws us together every Sunday.  We discuss some of the demographic possibilities for these research findings as well, contemplating whether age, gender or the clergy’s lack of dynamism may have something to do with why people report tuning out during the sermon.  The second half of our discussion then looks at the role that churches play in the community and we talk about Richard’s research on church activism in Los Angeles following the 1992 riots, a topic near to the heart of your host since he was living in L.A. at the time.  Prof. Flory details the various means that churches have tried to heal the city vis-a-vis charity, advocacy for social justice, community development, and interfaith dialogue.  He provides several examples including work done by Rev. Mark Whitlock, Cecil Murray of the First AME, La Voice PICO, and other groups.  He concludes by noting how churches must first be interested in developing the spiritual life of its congregants but then develop those interests in such a way that they entail community outreach.

Why Even Go to Church?

By Richard Flory

Yesterday, Jeremy Rhodes wrote about a new survey from Barna Group that shows that almost 50% of regularly attending American churchgoers say that their lives haven’t changed in any way as a result of their churchgoing habits. In the interest of full disclosure, David Kinnaman, President of Barna, is a former student of mine, and while I am proud of what he has done (and he’s taking Barna in good, new directions), I can’t take any credit for his success. Now back to the issue: church attendance doesn’t do much for half of those who go to church regularly. Without challenging Jeremy’s perspective—which I don’t disagree with at all other than I have absolutely no love for anything Disney—here is perhaps another way to think about the survey and what it might mean for churchgoing Americans.

Now, if I’m a pastor and I read the results of this survey (which I’m not, although I did grow up a pastor’s kid, a fact that probably goes a long way toward explaining why I’m a sociologist interested in religion), I’m thinking that these results suggest that about one-half of my congregation either doesn’t listen to the sermons, or maybe doesn’t understand the key points, or worse, that they find what I have to say completely irrelevant to their lives. Indeed, fully 60% said that they could not recall an important new religious insight from the last time they attended church, and 50% couldn’t remember any insight from the previous week’s service. That has to hurt the pastoral ego.

At the same time (and obviously), [Read more…]