America’s church slide II: What to do?

GENE ASKS:

What one factor more than any other would draw more people into the church?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

In the previous Religion Q and A, Gene asked  “what one factor accounts for the indifference so many Americans harbor toward the church?” The Guy nominated “fading cultural respect,” scanned what observers think about causes, and covered mostly hard church trends, not soft “spiritual but not religious” sentiments.

(A timely aside on religious identity: To coincide with the winter Olympics, Pew Research noted that Russians who call themselves Orthodox Christians have jumped from 31 percent to 72 percent of the population since the 1991 collapse of the atheistic Soviet regime. During the same years, believers in God increased from 38 percent to 56 percent. Do more Russians believe in Orthodoxy than in God?!  Yet a paltry 7 percent of Russians say they attend worship at least once a month, a small increase from 2 percent in 1991. Call that posthumous victory for Lenin and Stalin.

Back to how U.S. churches can rebuild cultural stature. In addition to the statistics in our previous item, many Americans are spiritually and morally confused, grumpy about leaders and future prospects, and hostile toward those they disagree with. Social media, self-absorption and secular diversions supplant face-to-face fellowship that was traditionally a major reason why church involvement fostered well-being. The success of individual congregations helps stem the tide, but no wonder church strategists’ brows are furrowed and pastors feel on the defensive.

The Guy’s answer to Gene is tentative, speculative, and may even sound like preaching, but these are journalistic hunches based on news reports and social research across many years.

Gallup’s longtime polling on what Americans think about various professionals is especially significant. As recently as 2001, 64 percent of Americans rated the clergy (all faiths) either “high” or “very high” in “honesty and ethical standards.” But a dozen years later less than half (47 percent) express such moral esteem. The good news? The clergy fare better than auto mechanics, bankers, lawyers, members of Congress — and fellow news reporters.

Perhaps that dismal 47 percent reflects the accumulating impact of three decades of incessant sexual molestation scandals involving Catholic priests and hapless bishops. Protestant personalities have also been mired in scandal and folly, and non-religious groups likewise contribute to the sour mood about the cultural establishment. But no doubt those errant Catholics did incalculable damage to the reputation of their huge church and its clergy (even though nominal membership is still growing). It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis can manage a turnaround.

A spillover effect very likely reduced regard also for non-Catholic churches and clergy. In the same way, one Muslim faction’s terrorism and murder of innocents in the name of God has very likely harmed their faith’s long-term moral credibility and also fosters suspicions toward devout religion of any type.

U.S. Protestantism is weakened by perennial acrimony within and between churches, mostly over the sprawling topic of Bible interpretation, In particular, the argument over homosexual marriages and partners evidently harms both sides. Conservatives are called inhumane and intolerant, while liberals are characterized as anxious to shun principles they long preached. The Guy has no idea how to solve this.

Clever programming, stunts, and entertainment-oriented worship may appeal to specialized audiences. But on the matter of restoring cultural standing, diagnosis of the data suggests “one factor” that might prove healthy although The Guy cannot promise it will boost numbers. In a word, integrity, the theme of a New York City consultation a year ago by dozens of concerned Christian leaders.

What might that require? Perhaps top-to-bottom reformation built upon unshakeable moral standards, and honest financial dealings freed from any hints of greed or secrecy. In a highly partisan era there’s reason to think churches should be judicious about identifying Christianity with mere politics, though social concerns are always a church responsibility. Rootless youths are said to desire authenticity above all else, which may warn churches against refashioning beliefs simply to fit intellectual fads and social pressures to — yes — “draw more people.” By all indications, those presenting Christian truths should honor the principle that “the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13).

Speaking of love, Americans who worry that their children and grandchildren won’t carry forward their beliefs might pay heed to Families and Faith (Oxford), which reports on a large-scale, four-decade survey by three University of Southern California scholars. The worrisome increase in non-religious youths results directly from parents with minimal interest in religion themselves.

No surprise there, but the U.S.C. team also concludes that it’s not enough for parents to teach their children doctrine and morals and set good personal examples. The pivotal factor in successful transmission of the faith is “warm” relationships with two parents. Contradicting what many suppose, emotional closeness to the father (and think how many homes today lack one) has much more influence on sustaining children’s belief commitments than the bond with the mother.

Interview with U.S.C. researcher Vern Bengtson: www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/august-web-only/religion-runs-in-family.html

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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