Monday, March 9, 2009

Whither Christianity?

A survey released today, The American Religious Identification Survey, shows a dramatic drop in the last 18 years of people who identify themselves as Christian. In 1990, 86 percent of those surveyed said they were Christian. That number is now 76 percent. Of those who say they are Christian, fewer are willing to identify with any denomination at all. As USA TODAY put it, "When it comes to religion, the USA is now the land of the freelancers."

This survey describes something that many of us in organized religion have observed for years now. Our society is becoming increasingly hostile to religion, or simply ignorant of it. In 1992, Episcopal priest and author Loren Mead wrote "The Once and Future Church", describing a world that is post-Christian, a world in which the old meanings of religion and religious institutions have broken down, a world which more closely resembles the mission field of the earliest apostles than at any time in history.

Word of this shift has not, by and large, made its way into the local parishes and congregations of the United States. Most of us have not noticed that our peers, our co-workers, the students we teach, our neighbors, may not have any knowledge of Christianity, or any interest in it at all. We wonder why birthday parties, soccer games and other events get scheduled on Sunday mornings. In large part, it's because Sunday is more available because many people have no affiliation with, or interest in, a local church.

So we work under old assumptions that no longer apply to the world we now inhabit. Assumptions like, "they'll all come back when they start having kids." Assumptions like, "we need to teach people how to be Episcopalians." Assumptions like, "it's rude to talk about faith or invite people to share my church."

What is happening in our world is unprecedented, and it is happening fast, as the survey reveals. This is not even about the survival of the Episcopal Church. This is about learning how to share our Christian faith, our belief in Jesus Christ as Lord, with people who no longer understand what this means, because they have never been raised in the faith.

Look around our own parish, and make an estimate of the average age of our members. Look at the average age of newcomers who seek us out. I will tell you quite frankly, they are Baby Boomers and older. We have some younger families, some younger members, but they are not here in the numbers they were ... twenty years ago, say ... when Baby Boomers were young parents, teaching Sunday School and running committees.

When I ponder the future of All Saints, I honestly wonder where we will be in 20 or 30 years. We are a wonderful community with much to share. Our faith in God and our love for one another has sustained and supported us for 55 years. But unless we learn to share this faith and this community with generations yet to come, generations who find us increasingly meaningless in their world, I wonder what will happen to this parish, to the Episcopal Church, and to American Christianity in 50 years.

Because as the survey shows, this is not simply an All Saints issue. It's not even just an Episcopal Church issue. This is a national issue that reflects the decline of religious participation across America.

One thing is for certain. The old assumptions no longer apply. The old way of seeking and incorporating new members no longer applies. The old way of speaking, or more likely, NOT speaking, about our faith no longer applies.

What do you think?

+ Kit

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