Fewer Americans in church
By Julia Duin
Churches are getting a bad rap these days. Some pollsters say at best, religion is losing its grip on American society; at worst, growing amounts of Americans are finding the institution irrelevant.
Nearly 100 million Americans live without a connection to a church, synagogue or temple, writes pollster George Barna, president of the Barna Research Group in Ventura, Calif. Most of them are unconcerned with this lack, he writes in "Re-Churching the Unchurched."
"More than average, these are people who are aggressive, high-energy and driven," he says. "They have made something of themselves, by the world's standards [and] they do not necessarily believe that God, Jesus, religion, the Bible, faith or Christianity will help them overcome the struggles they face."
The fact that a majority of Americans are not in church regularly can be observed in the Sunday traffic jams at movie theaters, food stores and on the way home from the beach - but not at houses of worship. Government officials in the District assumed downtown church attendance was negligible enough to schedule a Palm Sunday race through the city that made it nearly impossible for adherents to attend services.
Sometimes churches themselves are the problem, writes evangelical commentator Philip Yancey in his new book on how to "survive" the institution.
"Although I heard that 'God is love,' the image of God I got from sermons resembled an angry, vengeful tyrant," he writes about his childhood church in "Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church." "I had nearly abandoned the Christian faith in reaction against this church, and I felt deep sympathy for those who had."
Martin Zender, a speaker and author of the recent book "How to Quit Church Without Quitting God," says churches do not offer what's needed. "Especially after 9-11," says Mr. Zender, "when all of a sudden, people were flocking to churches. All the denominations were giddy. But three months later, they are back out.
"People are looking for comfort and answers," he says. "The reason people are leaving church now is they have serious questions as to where their dead daughter is or how the world is going to end. Churches offer musical productions and food, but they are not answering the questions."
Something seems to be wrong, Mr. Zender says, in "pew land." Even Charisma, a 215,000-circulation Florida-based magazine that chronicles charismatic and pentecostal Christian trends, devoted this month's cover story to why people are turned off by church.
"[We] found in a series of interviews with average non-churchgoers across the country a great many who consider themselves to be spiritualor religious have little or no time for church or the people who go there," senior writer Andy Butcher wrote. "Though Christians will celebrate the Resurrection this month, the good news simply isn't for a lot of their relatives, friends, neighbors and co-workers."
Although 59 percent of all Americans say religion is "very important" in their lives (down from 75 percent in 1952), 42 percent say they are in church on Sundays. During the September 11 crisis, attendance went up five percentage points and then dropped back.
Some, such as sociologist C. Kirk Hadaway, say actual numbers are closer to 20 percent. The University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center guesses true attendance hovers at 30 percent. The 2001 American Religious Indentification Survey, released in January, says more than 29.4 million Americans have no religion - double the number 11 years ago.
That's 14 percent of the nation, up from 7.5 percent in a similar 1990 survey. The 2001 survey found a "wide and possibly growing swath of secularism" in the American population that scholars and politicians frequently ignore.
City University of New York professor Egon Mayer, one of the authors of the study, says singles and childless couples make up large percentages of the unchurched. "Family formation is quite connected with church affiliation," he says. "We have increases in the number of people living together without marriage, so you have a decline in the population of people marrying and forming families.
"Higher incidents of interfaith marriage also mitigates church membership. The more people marry across faith lines, the less apt they are to join a faith community because they cannot decide which one." Anoher recent report, "Religion in America 2002," published by George Gallup's Princeton Religion Research Center, says majorities of Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and Jews agreed religion was losing influence in the United States.
Pentecostals were most likely to believe religion is relevant today; Episcopalians the least. And Pentecostals scored highest in weekly church attendance (63 percent) versus Episcopalians at 33 percent. Church membership was highest in the west central states and in the Southwest.
But it was lowest in the Pacific coast states. By region, New Englanders were most likely to say religion is out of date. By political affiliation, 31 percent of conservatives and 52 percent of liberals said they seldom or never attended church. Statistically, the unchurched tend to be single and male.
People who skip church, according to Mr. Barna, cite several reasons for doing so, including hypocrisy, inflexible beliefs or a non-compelling message from the pulpit. "Millions stay away because they cannot make the value equation work," he says. "When they calculate the amount of time, money and energy they would have to invest in a church, they do not see a reasonable return on the investment.
"Most of the unchurched figure they've gotten along just fine without the church for a long time, and until someone gives them reason to feel otherwise, they will remain spiritually unattached." Evangelical stalwarts like Mr. Yancey, a former Campus Life magazine editor who has penned 16 books, says people judge Christianity by its followers. "Rightly or wrongly, they see Christians rather as restrained, uptight, repressed," he writes.
But people still want God, says Mr. Zender. A huge number of people "are circling the edges" of church, he adds. "They are fed up with the institution, but they don't want to give up on God. But they are convinced Jesus Christ is in the institution so they are in a quandary. They see He is the answer but they can't take the institution."
They also cannot stand religious TV, he says. "People whose brains still work watch television like this and think: 'If these people represent God, God must be a real idiot,'" he says. "A lot of clergy will agree with me on the side. But from the pulpit, they keep the denominational line going."
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