Church Participation and the Growing Number of Unaffiliated

It’s happening – and happening around the world: an increasing number of people no longer participate in traditional religious groups and label themselves as not affiliated with religion. It’s not a new trend. In Europe, the shift became noticeable after World War II. However, people in the United States are becoming more aware that the shift is happening here, as well.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly 20% of people in the United States prefer no religious affiliation. In that group, only about 2% consider themselves atheist. Among those under age 30, approximately 1/3 prefer having no religious affiliation. Attendance at religious services in the United States is also declining. This is true for the large evangelical Christian mega-churches as well as close knit congregations.

While I can’t speak for all of those who prefer no religious affiliation, given the low number of people who state that they are atheist, I don’t think that the primary issue at work in this societal change has to do with a lack of faith. Overall, I think most people believe in something. Instead, I think the reason that people opt out of religious institutions has more to do with what is perceived as a lack of authenticity in the practice of religion.

Rather than attempt to describe what I think other people experience as a larger social trend, I thought it may be worthwhile to share some of my own frustrations with organized religion. As a member of the clergy, I often struggle with whether to just walk away from the institution or to continue to be part of it. My struggle has nothing to do with my faith or spiritual practice. But it has a great deal to do with behavior in religious institutions.

No matter how aware I have been in my career about matters of professional ethics and no matter how much I strive as an individual to live in a way that reflects my moral values, the repeated and consistent moral abuses committed by other members of the clergy are simply scandalous. In some cases, a fundamental lack of morality appears to characterize the way in which particular denominations function. Every time I read about another instance of clergy sexual abuse, financial misappropriation, or the misuse of position, I have difficulty controlling my anger. Of course, the consistent irony is that the ones who have entirely lost their moral compass are typically the ones who make pronouncements about morality for others. The hypocrisy of some clergy today is so great that I really just don’t want to be part of the group. Let me be clear: many clergy strive to live in ways that reflect commonly held moral and ethical values and strive to avoid any form of exploitation of others, to not use professional standing to harm others, and to not lie, cheat, or steal. But others have made such moral abuses a way of life to such a degree that in some circles these moral abuses are systemic.

While I value the teachings of Jesus and the collected wisdom of the Bible and while I find the Bible to be inspired and inspiring, it’s neither a magic book nor is it a text to be viewed uncritically. Even a cursory reading of the Bible demonstrates that there are a few things that are important, like loving one’s neighbor. No part of the Bible presents human sexuality as a significant concern. As much as many preachers refuse to acknowledge it, polygamy is a common form of marriage in the Bible. There’s simply not one common standard for marriage in the Bible, let alone one handed down by God. My point is that not only am I frustrated by the routine abusive practices of clergy but I’m also frustrated by the many ways the Bible, as a sacred text, is abused and taken out of context by preachers.

In terms of congregational life, I find that in most churches, Sunday worship is poorly planned and is typically shallow and boring. In some cases, rituals that have no meaning for our era are employed in artificial and stilted ways. In other cases, happy words, magical promises, and pop music are used to create an environment that is trite, at best. In a time of great uncertainty, when people look for spiritually-based communities that touch the needs of the heart and soul, many churches seem detached from the realities of daily life. For myself, I try not to expect too much from a Sunday service. If I get to sing a song that expresses the warmth and compassion of the Divine and hear a tidbit in a sermon or prayer that’s nourishing, it’s a very good Sunday. As for finding an entire Sunday service which nourishes me, well….it’s best that I maintain my practice of silent meditation. I’ve given up hoping for the opportunity to gather in a communal setting for a service that is reflective of and foundational for my spiritual life.

Given these three significant issues, why do I remain part of organized religion and a member of the clergy?

There’s an old adage that when thinking of church, one’s focus should not be on what one gets out of the experience but what one gives. Indeed, Christian community is about giving and sharing and not about taking and receiving.

I hope that my presence as a member of a church and as a member of the clergy can off-set some of the damage done by abusive clergy. While many people have been deeply hurt by the actions of clergy, perhaps knowing that someone is trying to do better can allow some room for healing. (Be sure: it’s not that I think my behavior is always what it should be. But I do make every effort to not use my position to bring harm to others.)

I also know that in my local congregation and in my denomination, there are many others like me who are attempting to discern a way to move through the complexities of life that reflects authenticity and compassion. Often, the things we do are simple. As a church, we collect groceries for a food bank, drive families members to see imprisoned relatives on Saturdays, march as a church in gay pride events, sponsor refugee families, and work to restore natural habitat. For a relatively small group of people, there are lots of programs. But the reality is that even working together we’re only able to make a very small impact on the problems that face our society. Yet, because we recognize something of the Divine Light within us, we know that we must do what we can to make the world a better place for others. When I remember the commitment of others to these efforts, I am encouraged to continue to engage in social change and not give in to a sense of futility because of the enormous needs in the world.

I suppose that the bottom line is that I know that the people in my local church as well as many of the people in my denomination struggle with the same issues that I do. I suspect that these are the same issues which those who give up on church entirely struggle with. We have chosen to continue to do what we can together. Will we solve the problems of the world? Of course not. But on our good days, perhaps we’ll make life a little better for someone. In so doing, perhaps we also do something for ourselves to make more sense of our faith.

As for people who prefer to have no association with organized religion today, I understand that choice. What we have known as institutional religion is dying. As a Christian, I believe that death is merely a transition to something new. Because of that, I am encouraged that people continue to strive to find ways to nurture heart and soul and lead a fuller life. I support those efforts, even when the choices made to follow a path in life are different from my own.

The role of religion in American life is changing. And it should. As more people prefer to have no religious affiliation, there is hope for a greater spiritual sensitivity as people find ways to nurture their hearts and souls in meaningful and purposeful ways.

© 2012, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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4 Responses to Church Participation and the Growing Number of Unaffiliated

  1. Exactly! I have found that the stultifying liturgy and rigid form of (my ) church does nothing for me. I can’t help but think that doing service for others, even just a favor or a telephone call, will be of more value to my soul than gritting my teeth and wishing I were not sitting through a church service. We have to be able to find our own way to connect to the spiritual in our lives in order to find fulfillment.

  2. Lou says:

    Thanks, Pat. I think we’re faced with living in a time when organized religion is falling apart but what will come to replace it has yet to emerge. I’m sure this happened for people in past ages, but that doesn’t help us navigate through our era of transition.

  3. Eddie Fowler says:

    Thanks for this, very useful at a time I too find that I wondering about being part of the established church here in the UK. Organised ritual has had it’s day here in the UK, but finding others to explore alternatives with isn’t that easy….. but I pray that like minded people who want to explore a life with God will come my way one day!!

  4. Lou says:

    I think that people will find new ways to gather to explore the spiritual dimension of life. Given that organized religion began to collapse in Europe with the second world war, in the UK you have the opportunity to explore some positive new directions.

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