The future of institutional religion

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestled with the idea of a "religionless Christianity" while in prison. Of course, he was executed before he could really define what that might mean. The idea caught on, especially in the 1960s, which produced the much ballyhooed "Death of God" movement. As history has shown, religion did not pass away, as sociologists of the 1960s thought. Indeed, religion/spirituality continues to be prevalent in our society. But there are signs of change. Recent surveys show a growing trend toward people, especially young people, designating themselves as "None" when it comes to their religious affiliation. This is an interesting turn of events, because in earlier days, even if you didn't attend church, you would likely affiliate yourself with a major religion. I'm Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. It was more a cultural affiliation than anything. You might even attend church once or twice a year -- to get it out of your system.

But things are changing. Many people have come to the conclusion that you can be spiritual, believe in God, and not affiliate with a religion. People might see in Jesus, for instance, a man of great wisdom and understand that most religious traditions do proclaim peace and love and such. But in actual practice, they don't live out their faith's professions. There is too much hypocrisy.

So, what does the future look like? And how shall we respond?

The evidence is that the "nones" will continue to increase. The question is, how does the church respond?

This is the question that Peter Savastano takes up in a Religion Dispatches piece. It's also the topic of Harvey Cox's soon to be released book The Future of Faith(Harper One, 2009), which I've read in proofs for another project. I will speak to Cox's book at a later date!

Savastano offers a rationale for why this spiritual dimension exists:

What exactly does this category of self-identity mean? Perhaps anthropology can offer some clues. Anthropologists of religion recognize that there is a universal human capacity to wonder at the mysteries of life and death and a need to make sense of or find meaning in the strange circumstances we find ourselves in. Drawing on the insights of the anthropology of religion, it seems it is universally common for human beings to strive to make meaning of the mysteries of birth, life, death and the cosmos; that there is, in fact, a part of us which is hardwired to be “spiritual,” for lack of a better word. I suspect too that it is out of this hardwired capacity for the spiritual that human beings throughout history have created the myriad and diverse religious traditions which are the source of some of the best and worst of human behavior, both individually and collectively.

Once religions were regionalized, but now there is growing interpenetration, leaving people more aware of options, and leading to a bit of hybridization of religion.

As for what can be done in response --

Savastano offers several propositions for how to respond. And response will require significant changes for Christians:

1. Abandon the idea that only one religion is true (one way of salvation).

2. Learn to "speak more than one religious language." We need, in the service of humanity, to learn to communicate in the "religious languages" of other traditions. Seek understanding.

3. Develop idea of "Multiple Religious Allegiances." This is already prevalent in Eastern Religions, but is not generally present in the three Abrahamic religions.

4. Develop a greater capacity for religious ambiguity. That is, we will need to develop a greater appreciation for metaphor, allegory, and symbol, while being less concerned about the literal and historicist interpretations of doctrine/dogma. (This is a central theme of Cox's book).

As for the presence of and growth of fundamentalist religion, Harvey Cox believes that it's presence will diminish over time -- that it's in its death throes. Savastano isn't quite so sure. But, like Cox sees it as a response to the growing uncertainty of life as we know it.

Along with all of the above, we have simultaneously witnessed the rise in fundamentalist religion—the literal and historicist interpretation of sacred texts, and the dogmas and doctrines they propound. I interpret this rise in fundamentalist religion (which, I am sorry to report, is also likely to stick around) as a reaction to the great uncertainty produced by rapid globalization and technological advancement, a response to the incredible imbalance and abuse of power in the world, and the unequal distribution of this world’s resources. Still, I remain optimistic. For if we are going to be able to live peacefully and productively in an increasingly complex world that puts us more intimately in touch than ever before, these are some of the critical ways that religion will have to change. After all, it does appear to be here to stay.

I am deeply embedded in institutional religion. I am a product of it. I'm an employee of it. I am a leader within it. I have much invested in this institution. Of course, I'm in middle age, and the long term effects of the present trajectory probably won't be felt until long after I'm retired. But what is the future? Where do we go? How do we respond?


Cynthia Astle said…
Bob, this piece on the future of institutional religion is excellent. May we have your permission to reprint it in the October issue of The Progressive Christian?
Cynthia Astle
Cynthia Astle said…
Follow-up: After consultation, we think we'd prefer to have one of your excellent book reviews of Harvey Cox's new book, rather than this blog post. How does that sound to you?

David said…
Thought this article might be of interest since you posted on the same day, using some of the same context.
Cynthia, let me check with Tripp Fuller about the Cox review. I'm game if he's open!


Anonymous said…
My neighbor has a bumper sticker like that. It makes me smile. David Mc
dan clark said…
Thanks for the piece on institutional church. As a pastor I meet it most directly in the folks who "no longer come to church". When contacted the answers seem to boil down to a lack of perceived need fufilment on the part of the church. Most, though answers vary, have some form of belief that the church really doesn't give me anything I can't do for myself. They come if their children find activities in which they can participate but as soon as school provides the same benefit, they drop out. Mainstreamers like myself don't have the option of fundamentalist: "Come or you'll die in the flames of hell!" I take solace in the fact that perhaps insitutional religion will never be number 1 in the popularity polls. Membership in a church does make demands(or should). Even if you only sit in a pew you had to arrange your schedule to be there. Maybe the phenomenon of the 1950's church spurt was an anomoly and that what we have now is more the norm for the life of the institutional church. Peace, Rev. Dan Clark

Thanks for the comments. I think you've got it right. Back in the 50s there was a certain social benefit that church provided, it no longer provides that. People don't care where you go to church or if you go to church. And, yes, we can't threaten people with hell, if that's not part of our theology!!!
John said…
This post has been working its way through me for a few days, so I apologize for its length.

I don't bemoan the institutional church's fall from status. I really think the church is at its most faithful when it is in the minority, outside of the power structure, with little opportunity to gain power or to exercise it. In a minority posture it can tend to its missions without the distractions of contending with internal constitutencies, it can care for the disenfranchised without being self-conscious, and it can speak truth to power without fear of corruption.

As for folks who don't come anymore - I want to be careful not to over-generalize here, because people have so many different reasons - but I think the biggest reason for their election not to attend anymore is that they viewed their incentives for coming rather narrowly, and those incentives were never spiritually sufficient, i.e., social acceptance, avoidance of eternal doom, and my favorite: THE TRUTH, in bullet point format.

The Church which Jesus established CAN deliver social connections, and the church CAN be a conduit for spiritual truths, and, more importantly a conduit for spiritual discipline. However, THE TRUTH is printed on our hearts and not in the pastor's sermon, and the concept of fire insurance has lost credibility for most people. People have learned that Jesus is a God of Love, and as such, he will not intimidate or threaten his followers, or those who may inquire. Any church which engages in threats and intimidation has perverted the message of God.

With these incentives having been discredited, the people of the Church must dig deeper to discover the genuine reasons which compel one to actively participate in the work of the church. For me the primary genuine reason is for mutual support in my adventure in seeking out and encountering the divine. And I think for God it is important that God be in relationship with each of us, but with each community of us. God lives communities, that is why we were designed to live not only in relationship with each other, but in community with many others. It is not good for the man to be alone.

I also find myself in agreement with the notion that we are hardwired to seek out the divine. The idea is not new - Paul speaks of it when he addresses the Athenians. And I think that God shares in the wiring as God seems bound to seek out humanity;, why in all of creation, does God spend so much time with humanity? There is no logical reason to me for this mutual seeking out, other than the idea that God created us to be in relationship with him, and because we are so created, we cannot escape that ultimate purpose.

Perhaps the future of the institutional church depends on developing a consensus as to the true incentives for participation in communal worship and then disclosing that understanding to the uninformed, and inviting them to join.

Perhaps I am naive but I can't help but believe that if those who live in grace-filled communities intentionally and outwardly rejoice in their grace, others will want to know more, and when they learn of the grace we share in our communities - because we share it with them, they will seek to join. For the best reasons of all.

Anonymous said…
I think many churches are so regimented and predictable that it tends to bore people. The larger the church, the more so this seems to be the case.

I agree John.

Being part of a smaller group as I (we) are now seems to make each of us seem more important. Also, sharing is harder in a large group, because it seems there will be that many more people who seem strangers, and getting to know everyone (or even anyone- people may misrepresent us behind our backs!) in a full way seems threatening and intimidating.

I'm not sure, I left my last church and fell away from social spirituality through the pain of divorce, but the possibilities a community of faith offers can't really be realized, even today, without the church it still seems. Not at work, or play, or even most families.

The alternatives always seem to involve some sort of artificial social grease, like alcohol or drugs or illicit sex or forming an our group vs. them situation (sometimes religious too, but I'm stressing racial, economic, regional, political, special interest clubs) which never offer full sharing. Or if it does the blackouts and/or shame keeps the memories fading.

My family is involved with Special Olympics (thanks to the Kennedy family) which you might think would rise to that level, but it doesn't. Well, maybe for the athletes it does! Anyway, I can't imagine God subjecting sinners to physical pain after death. I can't wrap my mind around that. Never could. David Mc
Gary said…
If I believed in that cross-dressing, unholy, sissy "god" of John and David Mc, I'm sure I wouldn't believe in hell either. Besides, the thought of being punished for your sins interferes with your sinning.
Anonymous said…
Maybe you still need a stick to keep you thinking about not sinning Gary. Maybe your idea of God should wield a bigger one! Isn't God naked? What do you think God need to be embarrassed about? David Mc
Anonymous said…
I'm curious Gary. Are you some kind of hermet who is cheating through the internet? Do you meet with a group of like-minded travelers in real life? You're so consistant, sort of like a robot. David Mc
Gary said…
David Mc,

Yes, I do meet with a group of like-minded travelers in real life; at church.
Anonymous said…
So kind of you to answer Gary. I'm happy for you. See my complement to you at the top article. Have a pleasant night. David Mc
John said…
Throughout history many of Jesus followers have called for Him to lead the armies of righteousness against forces of evil and vanquish the unholy Roman empire with force. And Jesus is forever responding that his way is not our way, He is first and foremost Prince of Peace. His more aggressive followers still can't figure him out - as if anyone could!?!

Anonymous said…
This caught my eye this week.
right brain, left brain = mind.
Can you separate the two?

David Mc

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