Sounding Board: Pastor discusses poll on decline in members
A recent headline has me pondering changes I've seen in my life. For the first time in 100 years, less than half the people in America even claim to be church members. Also, less than half of Americans say religion is important to them. How did this come about?
It's not immigration. Immigrants are much more religious than people born here. Yes, culture has been more and more secular, but churches have changed, too.
For many years, and certainly in the 1940s, the traditional denominations were focused on sharing the good news of God's love in Jesus. Pastors were starting new churches and walking neighborhoods, dropping in to talk to people. In those days nearly everyone was ready for company any time.
By the mid-1950s those churches were overrun with baby boom children and those churches turned inward. It would be enough to raise those kids in the faith, and they set out to do just that. They hired young, happy youth directors. They felt successful even while they were failing to convince their own young people that a life of faith and life in a community of faith was something they would want.
I grew up in that time, burgeoning Sunday School and a hundred kids in youth group. How many of my peers are living a life of faith, in a community of faith, today? With each generation it faded further, yet ask a long-time Lutheran, Methodist or Presbyterian for their best vision of the future and it's likely a return to that time of vast failure.
When I was a kid, the evangelicals weren't worldly. They were focused on winning souls, filling stadiums for Billy Graham crusades, introducing people to Jesus. Their focus was on decisions for Christ. Then they had their own time of growth and apparent success.
Even as the traditional denominations' youth groups shrank, the evangelicals' youth groups soared. As they built megachurches and experienced such success, they took another look at the world.
We should be running this place, they said, and began to put time and energy and resources into politics. Now they have good news to share with those who are politically and culturally conservative. Those who support gay marriage, accept evolution as fact or vote for people without an R by their name are soldiers on the other side of the culture war.
Many are still in denial, but they're losing their next generations just like the traditional denominations did. They have not convinced their youth that a life of faith and in a community of faith is something they want.
The traditional denominations never made a rational decision to turn inward and give up sharing good news with the world. In fact, they kept trying, weakly. The evangelicals never made a rational decision that culture war, fighting for their vision of America, was more important than anyone's relationship to God. Both turns happened, and so, we're a less and less religious nation.
The question is, will there be other turns? Will we become as secular as Western Europe? Will a few folks find themselves led to help all kinds of people see the difference Jesus makes in our lives? Will younger generations want a life of faith, in a community of faith?
Ladd Bjorneby, Retired Lutheran pastor
Copyright@ The Fig Tree,May, 2021