Monday, March 5, 2012

The End of Church

Dianna Butler Bass - Huffington Post - 2/18/2012 

Something startling is happening in American religion: We are witnessing the end of church or, at the very least, the end of conventional church. The United States is fast-becoming a society where Christianity is being reorganized after religion.

In recent decades, untold numbers of people have left the Roman Catholic Church. In a 2008 survey, Pew research found that one in 10 Americans now considers themselves an ex-Catholic. The situation is so dire that the church launched a PR campaign inviting Catholics to "come home," to woo back disgruntled members. There was a slight uptick in Catholic membership last year, mostly due to immigrant Catholics. There is no data indicating that Catholics are returning en masse and much anecdotal evidence suggesting that leaving-taking continues. Catholic leaders worry that once the new immigrants become fully part of American society they might leave, too. (That's because they will, and that is tied to higher education levels more so than 'secularism'.  Hence Rick Santorum wants his own kids educated but not yours.)

The end of church, however, is not merely a Catholic problem. For decades, mainline Protestants have watched helplessly as their membership rolls dwindled, employing program after program to try to stop the decline. In the last 15 years, conservative Protestant denominations have witnessed significant erosions in membership, money and participation -- with some of the greatest drops in groups like the Southern Baptist Convention that once seemed impervious to decline. In a typical week, less than a quarter of Americans attend a religious service, down from the half of the population who were regular churchgoers a generation ago.

There are successful individual congregations -- Catholic or Protestant, mainline or evangelical, liberal or conservative, small or large -- everywhere. But the institutional structures of American religion -- denominations of all theological sorts -- are in a free-fall.

The religious market collapse has happened with astonishing speed. In 1999, when survey takers asked Americans "Do you consider yourself spiritual or religious," a solid majority of 54 percent responded that they were "religious but not spiritual." By 2009, only 9 percent of Americans responded that way. In 10 years, those willing to identify themselves primarily as "religious" plummeted by 45 percentage points.  (All this in one decade. It will accelerate after this current rancid political season precisely because the voices no one wants to hear have ratcheted up their volume and are forcing us to really hear their ignorance.)

In the last decade, the word "religion" has become equated with institutional or organized religion. Because of crises such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Roman Catholic abuse scandal, Americans now define "religion" in almost exclusively negative terms. These larger events, especially when combined with increasing irrelevance of too much of organized religion, contributed to an overall decline in church membership, and an overall decline of the numbers of Christians, in the United States.

There may be hope, however, regarding the future of faith. Despite worry about the word, "religion," Americans are extremely warm toward "spiritual but not religious" (30 percent) and, even more interestingly (and perhaps paradoxically), the term "spiritual and religious" (48 percent). While "religion" means institutional religion, "spirituality" means an experience of faith. Large numbers of Americans are hankering for experiential faith whereby they can connect with God, the divine, or wonder as well as with their neighbors and that lead to a more profound sense of meaning in the world. Maybe Americans once called this "religion," but no more. Americans call it "spirituality." (I suspect this reflects the large number of people who have a foot in each camp and are still fighting their religious enculturation. This group will shift to the spiritual camp as they become more aware their religious tradition contains great spiritual insight and they become more comfortable with their not needing the institution to over see the insights.)

Some Americans want to be spiritually left alone, without complications from organized religion. But nearly half of Americans appear to hope for a spiritual reformation -- or even revolution -- in their faith traditions and denominations. Congregations that exhibit a vibrant spiritual life embodying a living faith in practical ways succeeding, even in the religion bear market. These sorts of communities are models of what might be possible to renew wearied organizations. But the macro-structures of American faith -- denominations -- have yet to hear this message. They are still trying to fix institutional problems and flex political muscle instead of tending to the spiritual longings of regular Americans. 

"Spiritual and religious" expresses a grassroots desire for new kinds of faith communities, where institutional structures do not inhibit or impede one's relationship with God or neighbor. Americans are searching for churches -- and temples, synagogues, and mosques -- that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world.
Americans are not rejecting faith -- they are, however, rejecting self-serving religious institutions.

The end of conventional church isn't necessarily a bad thing. Christianity after religion, a faith renewed by the experience of God's spirit, is closer to what Jesus hoped for his followers than the scandalous division, politics, and enmity we have now. Will there still be Christianity after the end of institutional religion? Yes, there will be. But it is going to be different than what Americans have known, a faith responsive to the longings of those who are expecting more spiritual depth and greater ethical integrity rather than more conventional church. Indeed, I suspect that the end of church is only the beginning of a new Great Awakening. (Me too.)


The one trouble I have with this analysis is that the really big money is still behind the big institutional churches and Diana Butler Bass doesn't bring it up in this article. I guess that's not surprising, as she is dealing with the latest statistical info, but the fact the two have gone hand in hand for ever is one reason the demise of organized religion is going to take longer than it should.  It's this hand fast relationship which is precisely why Christianity has never really been tried.  I can't help but reflect that the last very public event in the life of Jesus was stomping through the money changers in the Temple. (It's also the act that probably got him killed.)  That was a very prophetic act as far as things have worked out in His not so Holy but very Roman Catholic Church.

Someone asked me the other day what I thought would be the real spiritual message from all the intertwining of money, religion, and politics we are now seeing play out in this American election season.  I said it would be the enormous amount of light shone on the connections between money, politics, and institutional religion.  That's a good thing, if a not intended thing.  In the final analysis God gave humanity free will to make informed choices.  It helps to have unclouded facts when making informed decisions.  The fog is lifting on the machinations of our Roman Catholic hierarchy and it's not pretty.  And yet, I can imagine Jesus rejoices because His people are finally freeing themselves to freely choose His Way.  That's a good thing.

Another note of interest:  If readers haven't yet seen the interview with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin which was shown on 60 Minutes last night, I encourage readers to take the time to do so.  There is a moment towards the end when Martin really lets us inside the pain and anguish he feels about the Irish abuse crisis.  Archbishop Martin is not glad handing and smiling.  He is having an enormously difficult time not breaking down. This is a man who gets the difference between spirituality and religion. Between Christian compassion and Catholic dogma.  We need more Catholic leaders like him.


  1. Interesting reflections from a Catholic perspective. Thanks. Just a quick note: Her name is Diana Butler Bass (not Ross), and she wasn't in the Supremes. And while it would be great if more leaders were like Archbishop Martin, it wouldn't change the growing disinterest in institutional churches, just prolong in a different way than the money you mention their demise.

  2. Anon, I actually had Diana Butler Bass written in the post, and then saw that the byline I copied from Huffpo had Ross. Hmmm. I will correct this error.

  3. Thank you for pointing me to the video with the Archbishop.

  4. I saw this story earlier today. I presume you have already seen it as well, Colleen.

    It will be interesting to see how this parish plays out over the next few years and perhaps decades. My only knowledge comes from the article. But it certainly sounds like some people are ready to go it alone even in large groups if the bishops and above can't be bothered to listen and respond to real needs.

  5. Thanks Colleen and for the pointer to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin's video.