It was its own kind of ritual. On Sunday mornings, when I would return home from church, I’d visit with my mother. She’d always ask, “How many people were there?”
In my mother’s early life, church played an important role. Growing up in a coal town in Western PA, the church was the hub of religious and social activity. Mom spoke fondly of being a teenager and cleaning the church on Saturday’s with her girl friends. She recounted how special it was to be one of the girls selected as part of the May Crowning ceremony in honor of Mary, the mother of Jesus. There were the weddings, picnics, and dances. She loved to tell the stories about my father playing poker with one parish priest as well as the story of the time another priest showed up at my aunt’s farm to help with the harvest. While many of the stories were social, there was a reverence and awe that was nurtured in her from the church. “People need the church today,” she would say. “They lost their way. They need what a church can give.”
At age 84, Mom understood that many people need something the help to ground them. But her solution to the problem was something that doesn’t working for a growing number of people today. Indeed, a growing number of people in the United States, and a far larger percentage of people in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, have come to the conclusion that what they are looking for most just can’t be found in church.
The church of Mom’s youth was active, participatory, communal, and touched the lives of people where they were. Many churches today, with few exceptions, are boring, irrelevant, and missing the kind of spark that can ignite the imagination.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has published the results of several studies over the years that demonstrate several trends: that in the United States, the fastest growing “religious affiliation” are those who aren’t affiliated with any group. The Global Index of Religion and Atheism for 2012 reported a 9% drop in the number of people who consider themselves religious between 2005 and 2012.
While church leaders often blame those who no longer attend church for their behavior and continue to try to solve the problem by using better marketing techniques to address issues of church attendance, I’ve long been aware that “the problem” is reflective of a fundamental shift that is occurring for people throughout the world. Increasingly, people consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious.
While people arrive at a place of saying that they are “spiritual but not religious” from many perspectives, at heart this phrase conveys a strong awareness of some deep stirring that is personal, profound, and very real in the individual’s life. To be spiritual but not religious implies that someone has taken a level of responsibility for her or his own understanding of spirit and is not willing to turn responsibility for that over to an institution. Significantly, this phenomenon is global and not related to any organized effort.
The experience of people coming to understand themselves as “spiritual but not religious” will continue to grow. As it grows, at least in the Untied States, it will lead to the end of the influence institutional religion has had in our culture. The decline will also cause us to think about religion and spirituality in new ways.
Globally, a new kind of awareness is developing about religion and spirituality. I, for one, am excited at the possibilities that the transition will bring. I experience some of this vitality when I gather with people of other faiths for meditation and sharing. But in the larger scheme of life, I look forward to the ways we will learn to share with each other the growth, depth, and intensity of how spirituality infuses life.
© 2012, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.