“God is in His Heaven, and the hypocrites are in His church.” Now before you send me hate mail about being anti-Christian, I am only paraphrasing the results of a LifeWay Research survey on church affiliation. LifeWay is part of the Southern Baptist Convention headquartered in Nashville, Tenn.
LifeWay surveyed the 20 percent of Americans who identify themselves as unchurched. Unchurched means that they have not gone to church, synagogue, or mosque in the last six months. Seventy-two percent of the unchurched believe in God or a Higher Power, and the same number complains that religious institutions are full of hypocrites. Hence my opening line.
The number of unchurched Americans is growing. In 2004 only 17 percent of Americans claimed to be unchurched, a 3 percent rise in three years is significant. What is happening?
I suggest that there is a general outgrowing of organized religion by more and more Americans. For example, over half of those surveyed said, “Christianity is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people.” We want to love God and one another, but religion no longer seems to be the place where we learn how.
And while 52 percent of the unchurched believe that Jesus “died and came back to life,” 61 percent believe that there is no real difference among the various gods worshipped by the peoples of the world. While it used to be true that when people used the word “God” they meant the God of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, today “God” is generic. In other words, just because Jesus came back from dead doesn’t mean I have to stop chanting Hari Krishna. The difference between Yahweh, Jesus, and the elephant-headed Ganesha is about as significant to people as the difference between Coke and Pepsi.
This has got to be a huge problem for clergy whose success is measured by people in the pews. Fewer and fewer people are drawn to conventional religious settings. The survey doesn’t break the unchurched down by prior affiliation, so we can’t say which religion is suffering from the unchurched phenomenon the most, but I think it is safe to say that Jews are among the most “unchurched” and Muslims are among the least.
The usual response to this is to figure out some way to get people back into the pews, but I prefer to imagine alternatives to pews altogether. I suspect retreats, conversation cafes and other venues for face-to-face dialogue and contemplative practice are going to thrive as the numbers of unchurched grow. People may be outgrowing organized religion, but we will always need a place to sit and talk.
Church no longer provides this for many people. And the more faceless every life becomes the more we will need face-based encounters. I have nothing to suggest just yet, but I am working on it. If you have a suggestion, please share it with me.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro is director of the One River Foundation in Murfreesboro, Tenn. This column appeared originally on his blog.