Mountain Sky Outlook: Why Should We Change
March 1, 2016
America’s Changing Religious Landscape
Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow
The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.
SOME GOOD NEWS: there are vital ministries in the Mountain Sky Area!
There are amazing, vital, congregations in the Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain Conferences, where people encounter the empowering love of Jesus Christ, grow in their personal lives and reach out to engage and serve their communities. They come in all sizes, in large and small communities, on the plains, in cities, in the mountains. Some are more than 100 years old, some just began. Some vital congregations are growing, some are not. They can be found gathering in old buildings, new buildings, shared buildings, a pub, a coffee shop, on a piece of vacant land or in a City Park.
SOME NOT-SO-GOOD NEWS: fewer people are growing in faith through our ministries.
Vitality, by any measure, is not the trend among United Methodist churches in most communities across a four-state region. Our churches have been in decline for decades and there is no change in sight. We aren’t alone in this trend. We are in good company. It’s not like someone else is doing it right, and we aren’t. But it does call for those of us in leadership to sit up straight, pay attention and to try to lead into a new season of vital ministry. That’s our job.
SOME CHALLENGING NEWS: vital ministry for the future requires deep change now.
What we are learning, when we sit up straight, is that these trends are so big and so deeply rooted in what’s happening in the lives of people that they aren’t going to change by a new sign, a fresh coat of paint, or a better preacher. As a Church we are called into “adaptive change.” It’s the kind of change that is necessary when familiar patterns of life are no longer suited to the environment in which we live. It’s like when our toddler rolled his bouncy chair down the basement stairs. We had to install one of those removable gates at the top of the stairs to keep him safe. Our habit of keeping the door open and sprinting up and down the stairs unimpeded did not support the survival of our son. Or, it’s like when my dad fell on another set of basement stairs and blew his knee joint all to pieces. His body was no longer suited to an environment of stairs. He had to adapt to survive. He had to move to a home without stairs.
What we are learning is that the forms of religious life we know how to offer are no longer attracting the people in our communities. They are no longer engaging the spiritual longings of the people. The pattern of Sunday morning worship and Sunday School structured for a nuclear family with one working parent who live within a 15 minute drive of the church building, has been on a steady decline since the 1970s, when women re-entered the work force. Church as an institution that defines and promotes social norms of behavior is no longer in high demand. Church where people sit in pews and look to the pastor to dispense pastoral wisdom and comfort does not connect with urgent yearnings of people. Alan Roxborough, of the Missional Leader Network, says the place for mission is at the intersection of the biblical story and the stories of our lives. That intersection is more and more likely to happen outside the walls of our churches or in the weekly order of worship.
More and more people are describing themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.” They seem to know themselves as spiritual beings, seeking to grow in frank, intimate, spiritual community, but don’t look for it or find it in the traditional forms of church.
SOME REALLY HARD NEWS: change involves loss.
We can’t fix the decline by improving. It’s not about the pastor or the preaching, or the bible study, or the coffee. It’s not about the street appeal or the parking, or the hymnal. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about these things. We should. And we should always strive to improve. BUT, improvement is not adaptation. Adaptation requires that we let go of what we were raised on and learn how to behave in new ways. Adaptation requires that we quit doing what we know how to do that isn’t working, and try new things.
It is not easy to adapt. Nobody wants to let go of what we love. It’s like a camel fitting through the eye of a needle. It’s like entering your mother’s womb a second time to be born again. It might even be like death and resurrection. We’ve gotten used to things the way they are. It’s less disturbing to hold on to the forms we know, even as they decline, than it is to step out of those forms into a formless and uncertain future. Suffering loss is only worth it if your life depends on it.
So, Dad, you really need to move out of this house. We want you well and safe. You might not survive another fall like that.
THE REALLY GOOD NEWS: God has prepared us for difficult change.
Who better than the Christian community of faith to look up, see a pillar of fire, gird up our loins and march into the wilderness? This is what we are made for. This is what years of bible study, and prayer have prepared us for. John Cobb named us people of “self-transcending selfhood.” We are spiritually capable of being more than we are or have ever imagined ourselves to be capable of. And God leads the way. “Behold, I make all things new.” “Behold, I am doing a new thing, can you not perceive it?” “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.”
If I were you, reading this, right about now I’d be thinking, “I see the need for change, but what’s to say that THIS CHANGE will lead us into a new season of vitality?” If you aren’t ready to let go of the Rocky Mountain Conference and the Yellowstone Conference to create a new conference, what are you willing to give up to open the possibility of new creation?
Stay tuned. Join the conversation with your comments. There’s more to come ...
Elaine J. W. Stanovsky