Religion hasn’t become outmoded. It’s the way it’s being presented.

Are People Abandoning Religion?

By Rev. Paul J. Bern

today's church
today’s church

A recent poll showed that Americans who consider themselves Christian have dropped from a high of over 85% in the 1970’s to about 70% currently. There can be no question today that organized religion has attendance issues. The Catholic church, to use only one example, has been beset by ongoing allegations of sexual molestation of young boys by priests, and it has been mired in a series of lawsuits and legal judgments that at one time threatened to bankrupt the Vatican. Meanwhile, the Protestant denominations are doing no better with some sexual scandals of their own, such as the recent admission on TV that a certain well-known evangelist was unfaithful to his wife, as well as the molestation scandal of the so-called “bishop” Eddie Long right here in Atlanta that made national headlines a couple of years ago. To make matters worse, the TV channels are flooded with preachers who spend most of their time begging for money. Many of them are living in million-dollar mansions and are driving around in cars with six-figure price tags, yet there is a complete absence of accountability with these people. Nobody knows anything about how much in donations these “nonprofits” are accumulating, but the two biggest Christian TV networks, Trinity Broadcasting and Christian Broadcasting, are known to be sitting on tens of millions in cash – each!

I know of two additional statistics regarding the church, one concerning the divorce rate and the other concerning the state of its youth. First, the divorce rate for people who regularly attend church is about the same as those who do not – roughly 50%. Second, two out of three high school kids coming from Evangelical homes who go off to college are agnostic or atheistic by the time they graduate. Organized religion is losing its youth in droves. In light of all this, I see the need to ask some relevant questions, such as why the modern church is hung up on things like abortion and same-sex marriage when it should be preaching and teaching about the extreme immorality of waging war. But, since speaking the truth might prove to be unpopular for churches (not to mention unprofitable), it seldom gets mentioned. Why is it sinful for a woman to have an abortion in this country while US military forces killed 100,000 Iraqi civilians during the American occupation of 2003-2011? Why is it sinful for two people of the same gender to fall in love, but hating them is OK for moral reasons? These are hard questions and they pose some deep thoughts about the state of organized religion today.

Chances are that if you are in your 20s or 30s, you are not hanging around a church. Polling is now a highly sophisticated industry, and religious organizations are being fed some irrefutable numbers about what is happening among their constituents. In a single generation, the Christian church dropout rate has increased five-fold. The Barna Group, a leading research organization focusing on the intersection of faith and culture, says 80 percent of the young people raised in a church will be “disengaged” before they are 30. In the past 20 years, the number of American people who say they have no religion has doubled and has now reached 15 percent. Those numbers are concentrated in the under-30 population. The polling data continues to show that a dramatic exit is taking place from American Christian churches. Beyond those numbers, denominations across the board are acknowledging loss of membership, but it is worse than they are reporting. Many churches report numbers based on baptized constituents, yet actual Sunday morning attendance doesn’t come close to those numbers. Once baptized, always a report-able Christian! Simply put, denominations are no longer a reliable source of membership information. As a result, they are losing their credibility. Is it any wonder? The mega-church movement also has flattened, with people leaving as fast as they are recruited. The only real growth among Christians appears to be in the home church movement in which small groups of independent believers gather in a house to worship.

While the polling numbers are in, the debate about the reasons is only just beginning. When a pollster asks if a person has left the Christian Faith and a church, the answer is answered “yes” or “no.” However, when the pollster asks “why?,” the answers become mushy and the numbers lose their significance. Why are people leaving churches so fast? I am not a pollster, but rather an observer of the religious scene operating outside the boundaries of traditional denominations. As such I teach and preach the Gospel as it truly is, quoting the Bible verbatim while intentionally omitting any hint of denominational prejudice and belief. By the same token, my impressions are anecdotal and in no way scientific. All I do is receive personal responses to my columns, and I carry on conversations with a steady flow of people by e-mail or when I meet them at book signings. But I am also a missionary. Not in some distant country, but right here at home in the inner city of Atlanta. While it’s always good to reach the multitudes with the Gospel of Christ, I find I do best working one-on-one with people right here at home. I step aside within myself and yield power and authority to Jesus. In so doing I let others see Jesus by letting them see Him through me. Not by eloquent words or poetic sermons, but by example through kindness and tenderheartedness toward the poor, the disabled, widows and orphans, the homeless, the mentally ill, as well as ex-convicts and other vulnerable individuals, some of which don’t even realize how vulnerable they actually are.

I am convinced that those in positions of responsibility within the church, and particularly clergy, need to look at themselves for at least some of the reasons for the decline in membership. I offer three observations:

[1] Churches are no longer intellectually challenging. More and more of our young people are college-educated. In the future, even more will accept the challenge of post-high school education, especially if higher education becomes available to everyone without cost as it should be. The youth of today are thinking people who are expanding the horizons of their curiosity and knowledge at an exponential rate thanks to information technology. Speaking of expanding our horizons, what will happen to organized religion when life is discovered beyond earth, which will definitely happen in another ten years or so? Will religious entities be able to cope with the change in our view of ourselves in relation to the rest of God’s universe when that inevitable day arrives? Nobody currently knows the answer to these questions, but it is for these reasons that these young people often conclude that they know more than the person in the pulpit and are not willing to accept the church’s rigid catechism, an educational method that teaches all the allegedly correct answers to time-honored religious questions. As an educational tool, catechisms and other denominational instructions have become stale and provide no challenge to students eager to question and discuss 21st century issues. Ministers pastors, priests, bishops and elders must re-establish themselves among the leaders of the intellectual community. They can no longer rely on the outdated method of teaching unquestioning obedience as a method of control of their congregations and even of whole denominations.

[2] Churches are no longer leaders in moral and ethical discussions. Young people have grown weary of churches that cannot get past social issues such as homosexuality and abortion. What they hunger for is a church that rails against the accumulation of wealth and the hoarding of material goods. Today’s youth pines for a church that teaches gentleness, kindness, patience, empathy and compassion while rejecting materialism and the phony financial trappings of capitalism. Our new crop of church drop-outs is still very interested in alternatives to a selfish, hedonistic society. Justice is high on their agenda, so is morality, and they are looking for opportunities for service. Our young people want to be involved in solving environmental problems and in peacemaking. By contrast, pizza parties and rock concerts – techniques that have been used to make churches appear more relevant to the young – are not high on the agenda of young people concerned about society’s deep-seated problems. In other words, too many churches are concerned about same-sex marriage when the preacher should be talking about the unacceptability of war and poverty.

[3] Churches are no longer visionary. They have remained focused on saving souls for the next life and offering rituals tied to perpetuating theologies that no longer seem relevant to many young people. Churches are no longer teaching about Spiritual gifts because their leaders and teachers are not walking in the Spirit themselves! Churches are no longer significant players in shaping the life of our communities. In times past, ministers and churches laid out what the kingdom of God on earth should actually look like. Today, young people must look elsewhere because churches are no longer actively leading in most cases. In that sense, I am somewhat less concerned about the young adults who are leaving the churches than the continued viability of the churches they are leaving behind. One thing I know for sure – this will not continue much longer. That’s because we’re getting very near the end of the world as we have known it, and the beginning of a new age. I can hardly wait!

2 thoughts on “Religion hasn’t become outmoded. It’s the way it’s being presented.

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