Our Age of Spiritual Discontent

Perhaps the most notable issue many observers of American religion see is that religion is about choice. If there are thousands and thousands options in a coffee shop, there are even more when it comes to religious beliefs. “Adulthood,” Diana Butler Bass says in her book, Christianity after Religion, “means picking – education, career, partner, location, goods, political party, causes, beliefs, and faith” (41).

At church Sunday a man asked us “what we were,” and we told him we were “religious mutts” in that we have influences from a variety of directions – Baptists, Presbyterians, Plymouth Brethren, Anglicans, nondenomationals – and I house these influences in an Anabaptist orientation that loves liturgy. Hence, I don’t mind describing myself as a “Willo-palian” or an anabaptist Anglican. The man said to us, “My story is the same.”

How monochrome is your faith? How many major influences are at work in your Christian faith? Do you sense this is the new normal? Do you see this as a good thing, a bad thing, or something that is just true and that’s the way it is?

The big issue here is heritage, obligation and duty have given way to preference. Not a pastor in the USA has not experienced this reality.

Diana’s “Questioning the Old Gods” chp is all about shifts in three areas: Beliefs, Behaviors and Belonging.

1. Beliefs: If piety and patriotism used to belong together, some research shows that Americans’ view of God has changed dramatically. As much as 25% of Americans no longer believe in God. The standards stats: Evangelicals 26%, Catholic 23%, Nones 16-20%, and Mainline 16-18%. But the big issue for her is that their view of God has changed. The Stern Father has surrendered to a more benevolent God.

2. Behavior: she looks at church attendance and prayer. Church attendance numbers have been examined to show a wildly inaccurate reporting by Americans about their church attendance. The numbers more accurately show decline at a significant level, in spite of claimed attendance numbers. And Americans are attending multiple religious locations. Prayer, too, has changed: former religious traditions are mixed, with Baptists using prayer books and Catholics free-forming their prayers.

3. Belonging: Who am I? was connected to Which denomination am I? Not so much anymore. Traditional labels have lost cash value and 44% of Americans have “switched” religions. She explores multireligious identities, though the research here is still in its infancy.

Religion is no longer normal; people have choices and they are using those choices in their religious faith.


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  • EricMichaelSay

    This hits home for me. My parents grew up Baptist and discovered the holy spirit in their mid 20s, then Vineyard, then non-denom charismatic, now emergent.

    Add a stint in a Free-Methodist denom, and a house church, and you get an idea of my journey.

    I wonder what effect the Internet and communication has had on the dynamics of a growing faith?

  • Scott Gay

    Lutheran, long agnostic stint, rebirth experience reading Wesley’s Standard sermons, Methodist, missionary work in South America, non-denom charismatic, youth parachurch coffeehouse ministry, 2 Baptist church plants, 4 house churches, Wesleyan. And we serve in a community which is the 4th largest old order Amish in the world.
    There once was a time when you lived with the same people throughout a lifetime- very paternalistic. Then there came a time when you lived by the balance of your conscience- I’d say holy spiritual. Because I see us leaving this type of era, it puts me out of touch with many of Bass’s contemporaries(especially Harvey Cox who sees the future of faith as a Spirit era). I truly believe the time we are coming to, that Bass is envisioning, is predicated by the fact of people coming and going throughout many turns in life- it’s overarching ethos will be maternalistic.

  • T

    I think this trend is a mixed bag (good and bad parts), but I don’t think it’s fully accurate to say that “heritage, obligation and duty have given way to preference.” Rather, cultural roots and formational power of local/inherited institutions have given way to exponentially expanded mobility of persons and ideas. People and communities who used to be somewhat isolated are much less so. We have always been people who are significantly shaped by the people and ideas with whom we interact. It’s just that the circles of people and ideas with whom we interact used to be much, much more locally determined. No more. The explosion of personal mobility and of media via television and pseudo-personal, pseudo-anonymous communications via the internet has drastically changed the ability of the same institutions (denominations as just one example) to maintain near exclusive influence for long periods of time. It’s not just about shopping and preference; as if we’ve all become more driven by our preferences than we used to be. It’s about exposure to other ideas and people that shape those preferences, and the ability to access other communities, both intentionally and not, both physically and not.

    I think Proverbs 18:17 has significant explanatory power on this point: “He who tells his story first makes people think he is right, until the other comes to test him.” Because of mobility and communications that have expanded at exponential rates, the one that “tells his story first” has many more “others” coming to test him, and often much earlier, than used to be the case. The local pastor of one’s parents doesn’t have the monopoly on religious ideas that he used to have, nor is he as likely to be subject to such a monopoly, denominationally or otherwise, because of improved mobility and communications.

    On the whole, I think this is a good thing. Let’s face it: some denoms have been created (or split from other ones) over some pretty stupid stuff. But it’s a lot easier to see the stupidity when you can read about the hundreds of different denoms and the (often, not always) silly theologies that separate some of them. IME, the better educated congregation has less patience for making mountains out of molehills–mainly because they can better identify which is which.

  • Greg D

    I started out as a die-hard, dispensationalist, fundamentalist hooked on end-time prophecy. I was heavily involved in “discernment ministries”, prophecy conferences, and cult awareness ministries. My first church attendance was with the Assemblies of God churches although I had difficulty with the charismatic aspect of it. Then, about seven years later I was introduced to Reformed theology and through a 5-year process became an ardent 5-point Calvinist and embraced covenant theology. It was only about 5 years ago that I began to move away from labels, groups, and bound theologies. I strayed away from Reformed theology for two reasons: 1) I couldn’t reconcile some of the points with the Jesus I had come to know. 2) And, I began to see the argumentative nature both in myself and others of the Reformed faith. I found it to be too academic.

    I eventually migrated to a more missional, emerging, Anabaptist, and ecumenical theology. Several years ago I read, “A Generous Orthodoxy” by Brian McLaren and it seriously changed my perspective. The premise of the book is that we shouldn’t tie ourselves to any one set of bound theologies, but embrace all aspects of the Body of Christ. And, that is where I am at now. I see fragments of truth in several different theologies and denominations. Even though I am in most part a Protestant, I also see truth in other traditions of the Christian faith as well (i.e. Greek Orthodox and Catholic).

    Ironically, this shift in ideology has also carried over into my socio-political beliefs as well. I was once a right-wing, conservative, Republican only voter. Now, I have moved more to the left settling more on Libertarian views. Although, I do not vote and I am not involved in politics.

    So, I used to be mono-chromatic and as I have matured in my faith have now embraced several principles from many theologies and beliefs within the Christian faith. Sadly I have received a lot of flack from many of my friends and fellow believers in Christ. It seems the terms “liberal” and “emerging” just don’t jive with many of my conservative and fundamentalist brothers in Christ. But, it’s been a slow process and I have since regained some of these friends that I had lost as a result of my new and mixed beliefs.

  • T

    Let me add that there are loads of angles on this, each deserving of serious thought and discussion. For example, think of how many times and ways one must in some sense say “no” in order to be selective about the ideas or images that one receives as a typical American today compared to an American even 40 years ago. “Picking” or “choosing” is now thrust upon us, regardless of whether we want or can handle the choices. Ideas and communication are not just easily accessed, they are with us everywhere by default. They are arguably “invasive.” I got a “push notification” just last night, after midnight, from a game on my phone that I didn’t know sent such things. Regardless, this latest form of communication from my “smart” phone is aptly name. I don’t just get calls on my phone anymore, I get “pushes.”

  • Grandmother

    Raised Nazarene by parents who had themselves been raised AOG/Foursquare. Those manifestations of the Holy Spirit started crossing denominational boundaries, and parents began exploring their roots and heritage again – this time thru the lens of various charismatic churches. By the time I enrolled as a freshman at a conservative but non-denominational Christian college (that was more Calvinist than Arminian), I was already a bit of a mutt. Joined a Baptist church as a student and continued to pursue missions as a vocation.

    Joined a Bible translation organization with a broad doctrinal statement. Married, did a little Vineyard exploring on the side for a brief time and began our work overseas where we were exposed to even more breadth. Eventually settled for the blessed stability of Anglicanism with plenty of the charismatic influences which had deeply affected the whole region. Came to deeply appreciate the liturgy. For 20 years we were Anglicans overseas and Baptists on furloughs. Exposed our American evangelical friends to the idea that there were “Anglicans-who-are-OK” in the process. Our children were all baptized as infants and confirmed as youths overseas. Two participated in “believers baptism” at our Baptist church on furlough. One was baptized in the ocean at the American international school he attended overseas.

    Now back in the US for several years. Beliefs/Belonging/Behavior. Shifts? It’s been more like an earthquake! Who and What AM I, anyway? Can I plug back in ANYWHERE in the current American evangelical world? (Which, by the way, is different than the one we left 30 years ago) Our broad-based-internationally-raised children grow up and bring more change from the doorstep into our house through marriage.

    Oh wait! Maybe I’m not even an “evangelical” anymore! (What IS one, anyway?) Thanks, Life! And thanks, Internet, for exposing me to even bigger questions and ideas than folks in “my circles” had been asking. RC. Eastern Orthodox. Progressive Christians. To name a few! Where do the questions stop? How does one Belong, Believe or Behave when all is in such flux?

    Sociological interplay of roots, broad cultural shifts, mobility within America, education, mobility across international borders, technology, communication. Perhaps our lives have been influenced by these things more quickly and more deeply than your average American. But I think it is going to become the New Normal. Good or bad? Does it matter? It simply IS.

  • Pat Pope

    I don’t think it’s as abnormal as we think it is. I think more and more people are comfortable talking about it whereas in the past, you stood a greater chance of being shunned or written off as being confused.

    As for me, I was raised American Baptist, spent 3.5 years in a Charismatic church, 12 in an Evangelical Friends church and now back to American Baptist.

  • Val

    I’m definitely a theological mutt. I also lived off the beaten track – Canada’s sub-artic – during the years when I received Jesus and began going to church. The church I went to had sunday school teachers who were against, well, everything, and they liked to instil a lot of fear, my friend’s mom was great, she just loved everyone. They were especially critical of First Nation’s beliefs. After University, and meeting some pastors who went to a lot of Vineyard conferences, I returned to the north and joined an Anglican church. They did Holy Spirit Alpha weekends and the Native people just clicked with the Holy Spirit, it was like the mustard seed moving the mountain of distrust and pain for them. The minister was committed to the Holy Spirit and suddenly they had a place where they could do more than a minister. It was like – boom – instant visions, prophecy and a deep understanding of Jesus.

    To this day I am committed to defending the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts because I saw how quickly a the Dene/Inuit (Indian/Eskimo) people could receive visions and prophecies when they were exposed to them, vs. Euro-North Americans. And then get amazing, deep visions that just fit with prayer time, without hang-ups, confusion, or grasping for attention/power once introduced to the Holy Spirit.

    After this, and a year in south Asia, and on through a few other denominations – Vineyard mostly, I realized there is no perfect denomination, no amount of human rules, theologies or cool/correct preachers that can “save” a church from losing it’s focus on Christ. I think each town has churches that are functioning and churches that have or are losing their main focus for idolizing certain leaders/brands/theologies instead of focusing on Jesus and his Kingdom (the goal). When I found a denomination I loved in one place, then moved, the next town/city had a barely functioning church of the same denomination, and a great church of a completely different denomination.

    For me it was some brand of Baptist in the north – Alliance – NABA Baptist – Anglican – Vineyard – Anglican – Vineyard – Brethren based/plant – Vineyard – Evangelical Free (about 80% are due to moves or a church collapsing and closing – too small, lost too many members, etc.). And from all this, I don’t like to take sides on all the issues. The one issue that bugs me the most is complementarianism, but then in Canada, most denominations allow women pastors – if gifted/trained – in denominations, so it is church by church that allows/denies them.

    I am not a neo-reformed fan because I have watched all the idol worshipping of certain pastors from another denomination about a decade ago and saw similar: “they can do no wrong” mentalities. Until they do go wrong. Then the exodus from church attendance begins…the disillusionment, the disappointment and the new resolve to go do something for one’s own life and old life commitments viewed as a colossal waste of valuable earning years, or a sudden revelation of how the (mennonite/calvinist/charismatic) doctrine is soooo much better (as if all those years in the old theology were not Christian or something).

    I think all this adherence to leaders/theology is a younger person’s thing. The older I get, the less impressed I am with any certain theology – all have strengths and weaknesses, and the more I just want a place where everyone can build each other up and use their gifts. Without all the controls of detailed statements of faith to be signed (does it matter if one person believes in evolution and the other in 6-day creation/pre-destination vs. responding to God’s call/ penal substitutionary vs. Christus Victor atonement theories?) Jesus is the point of the Bible, the rest feels like politics and more importantly, the Bible doesn’t absolutely answer it for us, despite everyone’s deeply held convictions that it most certainly does. If it was so important for admission to the Kingdom, I am sure it would be clear enough to not have denominational divisions over it. I see good things in quite a few denominations, hard to sign one statement of faith as better than the rest.

  • Ben Thorp

    I’m always slightly worried by people who have always been in one particularly strand of the church that maybe they haven’t wrestled enough with their theology.

    I was brought up a Christian. My father is an Anglican vicar, but the first church I remember was an ecumenical church project between the Baptists and the Anglicans. From there to traditional rural Anglican parishes, but got involved in non-denominational youth work with some elements of charismaticism. Spent a year in a Brethren church, and now 15+ years in a charismatic, Church of Scotland (presbyterian) church plant….

    I usually define myself as charismatic/reformed.

  • Scott

    Grew up in the Restoration Movement (Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ) from birth through high school (with a one-year hiatus in a PC(USA) in elementary school). Went to a Christian Church Bible college where I found a wide breadth of influences (early Church Fathers, Wesleyan-Methodist, Anglican, Moderately Reformed, some Catholic [Nouwen, Mother Teresa, Aquinas], Neo-Orthodoxy) while still clinging to my Restoration Movement heritage. Spent some time in a Christian Church that ventured into the Charismatic and embraced certain elements of that theology. Now I am serving at a Christian Church that has distanced itself from its RM heritage somewhat (though I still see myself very much as RM). Hauerwas, Yoder, Wesley, Augustine, and Wright have probably had the most recent heavy influence on me.

    The wonderful thing about being RM is that we are a movement without being a denomination (arguable, but we’re technically not). “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, no law but love, and no name but the divine” is somewhat naive, but it provides a heritage, a direction, and yet some openness that I really value.

  • This is such an interesting post to me in a way, and due to my time constraints, I end up missing so much and limiting myself, but I had to come back to this one.

    I find your own mix of influences, Scot, quite interesting. I have come back somewhat totally (ha) to my Anabaptist (Mennonite) heritage, but have been influenced along the way with the “charismatic” (Vineyard), surely the evangelicals (more like a free and low church orientation), and now a sacramental element (in the Evangelical Covenant church we’re a part of).

    I think even churches in denominations are more purposefully opening themselves up to other traditions within Christendom, such as Mennonites dialoging with Orthodox, or learning from them, etc. Which I think overall is quite healthy.