Wandering Souls and the Divided Church

Those of you who are interested in such things have no doubt heard about the latest Pew survey on Religion in America which was released last week. It shows an America which is deeply religious yet growing ever more open to other faith traditions and less and less dogmatic about their own. In particular, there is a lot of fluidity to people’s beliefs. 44% say that they have switched religions, denominations or gained or dropped faith in their lifetime. The mainline Protestant denominations are continuing their downward spiral while non-denominational churches continue to show modest gains. One of the studies co-authors, John Green, says, “It will become increasingly difficult to find people who share a love for distinct doctrine . . . firm beliefs and firm organizations are increasingly a thing of the past.”

Reaction to the findings have been mixed. Cardinal Francis George says that rampant individualism which leads people to “trust only their own spiritual experience” means that they are unwilling to follow church teachings. Eric Zorn at the Chicago Tribune lauded the supposed humility of Americans which “leads to tolerance, understanding and attitudes that promote true freedom of conscience in a multicultural world”. Others, like Erin Manning at Crunchy Cons lament “cafeteria-style religiosity that lets them accept what’s individually pleasing and reject anything that isn’t”. I think that John Green probably gets it most right when he says, “”Just because they don’t want to believe that there’s only one way to salvation doesn’t meant that they don’t take their religion very seriously.”

So what is going on here? No doubt there are a lot of complicated things at work which I could go on and on about. However, the one thing which I think many commentators aren’t fully understanding but which I think is probably the most influential development in American Christianity today is the death spiral of denominations. And not just denominations, but the death of any sort of faith in the value of denominational distinctives.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think that denominations are simply going to disappear. However, what I do think is happening and will continue to happen is that the teachings which separate one denomination from the next will become increasingly irrelevant. If you attend the local Presbyterian Church and you move, you may check out the nearest Presbyterian Church in your new town. However, if the pastor is creepy, the people unfriendly and the services dull as dirt, you probably won’t feel any compunction about visiting the Lutheran Church down the street to see what they have going on. The differences in teachings on creeds, baptisms and ordination probably won’t matter much to you unless you find that you want to do something that they don’t allow. The question this begs is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

There is the argument that an unwillingness to affirm and submit to the authority of a particular church is a sign of individualism run amok and cafeteria style Christianity. However, I think that is an argument which often doesn’t hold up in the real world. First of all, statistics tend to show that the churches which are showing growth are those which are more rigorous in their teachings and which often offer a strong sense of belonging. Meanwhile, the mainline churches which are depopulating the fastest are those which have moved towards an “anything goes” ethos which asks next to nothing of their members in terms of their personal beliefs, morality and loyalty to the group. Also, if you actually talk with people who have changed churches you hear complaints about nasty pastors, bad music, unfriendly cliquish people, management problems, a lack of community, etc. From my experience you rarely hear anyone say, “well, the pastor gave a sermon on sexual purity and I decided that I didn’t want to be sexually pure, so I left.” I’m sure it happens, but to be perfectly frank, most people are failing so badly at the hard teachings of personal morality that the pews would be empty if if was common practice to abandon churches which taught strong personal morality. Really, I would wager that any church which was able to offer the support needed for its members to live out a life transformed by Christ, including resisting the temptations of our culture’s moral free-fall, would be quite successful.

It can be tempting to blame the people, who are almost universally behaving in ways which are anathema to Christian teachings after all, for taking the wrong approach to church. However, I think that the real problem lies with a church which is so divided over everything from infant baptism to speaking in tongues to gay ordination and creationism that it is unable to play its essential role in supporting its people who are trying to function as people of God in a hostile environment. Many people have come to the conclusion that the church is divided over issues which are largely irrelevant to their faith walk, but without any other option, they do tend to end up as wanders simply doing what seems best to themselves. Continue reading