Mistrust and the Individualization of Religion

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 4.09.52 PMA recent Barna Research communication identified the erosion of public trust in institutions as an important trend for 2014.  This erosion of trust dates back at least to the 1970s and the Watergate and Vietnam War crises.  New research, however, shows that trust in the institutional church has sunk to new lows, particularly among Millennials.

Only 30 percent of Millennials say they believe that churches “have my best interests at heart.”  For older generations, including the Baby Boomers, the corresponding figure is 41 percent.

The drop in trust plays out in how people identify themselves.  Many no longer want to call themselves “Christian,” and substitute other identifiers like “Jesus follower.”  Others describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  Famously, there has been significant recent growth in the “Nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation or label.  Some are inclined to describe our current time as “post-Christian,” “post-denominational,” “post-evangelical,” or even “post-religious.”

The way this plays out in the contemporary U.S. church scene is that people are opting out of church altogether.  According to Barna Research, “40% of unchurched adults say they do not attend [church] because they ‘find God elsewhere.’”  Thus, there is a high degree of skepticism that church can help a person “find God” or grow closer to God.

We ought to ask ourselves to what extent God is present in our worship services, study groups, and mission projects.  Is our worship service just a progression through a set routine of activities, or do people really meet God and experience the Holy Spirit there?  Are our study groups just (in the words of one frustrated parishioner) “shared ignorance,” or are they a means for uncovering and applying the revelation of God’s truth?  Are our mission projects simply a way to meet the physical needs of others (and make ourselves feel good in the process), or is Jesus Christ ministering to people’s spirits through us, even as we touch them in practical ways?

The mistrust of church also plays out in the dramatic rise of nondenominational churches across the country.  In the area where I live in Texas, there are more independent churches than there are denominationally affiliated congregations. Many are “baptist” (with a small “b”).  But the primary characteristic is that these churches are entities unto themselves with little or no connection to a larger body or denomination.  Many of the largest churches in the country are independent nondenominational congregations.

These unaffiliated churches appeal to those who have lost trust in the institutional church. They have the luxury of governing their own affairs without the “handicap” of a larger denominational structure to impose rules and requirements or take a “cut” of the offering.  There is no interference with the decision about who will serve on the pastoral staff of the church. Nobody owns the church building other than the congregation itself.  There is almost a fortress mentality here.  As for accountability, if the church does something its members disagree with, they are free to leave and find a different place to worship (and they often do).

In this climate, for The United Methodist Church to survive, it must provide two things: substance and integrity.  Those who attend our churches must have a good opportunity to meet and be touched by the living God.  The sermons and studies the church presents must be more than simply feel-good pabulum.  They must connect the attendee with the breadth and depth of orthodox Christian teaching from the past 2,000 years in a way that causes people to deepen their thinking and character in conformity to Christ.

And the church must be a model of integrity.  Where misconduct has happened (such as in the Catholic priest abuse scandal), there must be openness, transparency, repentance, and a correction of the system.  A church’s words and actions must match—saying we are friendly while ignoring visitors is a common disconnect.  It is simply unacceptable for bishops and pastors to promise to uphold the teachings of the church and then publicly call those teachings “immoral and unjust and no longer deserv[ing of] our loyalty and obedience,”  and then go out and disobey them publicly.  It fails the integrity test to “keep your answers short and sweet and lie by omission about your feelings on the Discipline”  in order to get ordained.

People no longer trust the church because they don’t meet Christ there and because they sense the lack of integrity.  If we fail to remedy these failings, not only will our churches not survive, we will be shown to be unfaithful to God.

What do you think?

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