The statistics describing religious activity in the U.S. and Europe today are confusing, at best. On the one hand they describe a tremendous increase in spiritual beliefs and membership in some denominations and religions, and at the same time describe an equally tremendous decrease in participation in some of the same denominations and religions. To understand the pattern, we need to look at the historical dynamic.
The tradition of attending church on Sundays (or temple on Fridays or Saturdays) is one that most Americans have grown up with and believe is necessary for our spiritual well-being. We plan our weekends around it. We have special clothes that we set aside to wear for the event. We learn special songs and prayers to be used then and there. We teach our children to behave in certain ways then and there. In short, our weekly visit to the sacred sanctuary has been a significant part of our lives.
Unless, that is, we’ve grown up in a family that doesn’t—as some babyboomers did and many have chosen for their children. Or we’ve turned away from a family that does—as many babyboomers and their children have. Or, in more and more cases, we’ve realized that what is done every week in the sanctuary is a nice beginning but is not sufficient to keep us spiritually nourished—as many people in their senior years have, for centuries.
It’s clear that, following the Viet Nam Era of the late 20th century, and into the early 21st century, many Americans are joining these latter groups, as did many Europeans following World War II in the mid-20th century.
When asked why, such people will have one or more of several responses, they say that they:
- Don’t see the relevance of the services to the life they’re living;
- Don’t accept (or understand) all the things being said in the services;
- Don’t see the need to create a separate sacred space when everything, everywhere is sacred;
- Don’t believe it’s necessary to dress up and go somewhere to commune with the divine;
- Don’t think observing someone else read and speak and sing adds to their spiritual life.
These explanations are worth paying attention to, and a number of churches and temples on both sides of the Atlantic are doing so. They’ve created a more casual atmosphere, where dress is no longer considered an issue. They’ve involved more people in the service, so the focus is on what’s being shared rather than on who’s standing up in front. They’ve updated the language and music so people can see that the ideas being presented really do apply to life today. They’ve refocused their message to be upbeat and entertaining. They’ve created programs that extend beyond the weekly services to engage people in other ways.
And the churches and temples that have done these things have seen a huge increase in attendance. In many cases, they’ve gone from dozens of participants to thousands, as people feel the excitement that accompanies all these changes. They’ve become places where people feel alive and connected, welcome and appreciated, uplifted and hopeful. They are the “mega-churches” and “great central temples” that may be found around large cities in every state of the union. And they exist in every denomination and religion.
It looks like these places have found the key. They are the successes. They’ve hit the mark.
Until you see their internal statistics. Then you realize that only about a third of the people who are involved actually attend weekly services after they’ve been there about two years. The rest may still participate in classes and other activities; they still identify the organization as their spiritual home and want it to continue functioning, but they’re no longer regulars in the weekly service. And, on top of that, the average turnover in membership for these huge organizations is 30% or more every two years.
Why? What’s happened?
People who shift from being active weekly attendees to support roles in these “megas” say things like:
- I love the message and the music but feel like I get lost in the crowd;
- I take the recording home and listen to it through the week;
- I’ve heard the message so many times I don’t need it any more, but I love the community and want to support it;
- The new music is too loud for me but I love the minister and the message and want to support them;
- I find the quiet service on (whatever time) meets my needs now;
- I get more out of the classes than the weekly service.
These are people who recognize that spiritual community is essential for spiritual well-being and have found a place where what they believe is being supported in a lively, energetic way, but are not served by the weekly service.
People who no longer attend say things like:
- I felt really uplifted and joyful in the beginning, but after a while it wasn’t enough;
- I need more than “feel good” religion;
- It’s a wonderful place to go now and then, but I want a spiritual community where I can connect with the people during the services;
- I know they’re doing the best they can, but with so many people, they just couldn’t give me the support I needed to get through the hard times.
The fundamental reason these people have left has to do with the need for spiritual support. They want to feel the human connection as well as the divine uplift.
The result is that a new kind of pattern of religious activity is emerging, on both sides of theAtlantic. Like many things in the current culture, it has two extreme forms, working in a dynamic tension within the overall system. And this is why the statistics don’t make sense.
On the one hand are the hundred or so “megas”, the churches and temples which, like the cathedrals and grand temples of ancient days, draw hundreds—even thousands—of people from all over their region, for weekly services and other activities, but have only a small core of “regulars” from year to year. These are headed by a charismatic senior leader who is the usual speaker at weekly services, with a large organization of assistants and associates and administrative staff providing the ongoing day-to-day support services of the community.
On the other hand are the thousands of small community and household gatherings, where twelve to thirty people gather once or twice weekly to share their joys and concerns, their prayers and stillness, some music, and some sacred scripture. These may be led by members, rotating through the office, or by part-time or “visiting” ministers who have come to know the members and provide new insights and understandings. Committees of volunteers provide administrative and pastoral support, involving most of those who attend in the day-to-day activities of the community.
Then there are the millions of individuals and households who make a point to honor the divinity revealed in Nature and in the soul of the individuals around them. They pray and meditate daily, seeking internally for the spiritual nourishment they no longer search for in the world around them. They honor the many spiritual paths that humanity has developed over the millenia, and have found the specific path that works for them—that is, the path which assures them they are in near-constant communion with the divine, wherever they may be, and whether in this body or not.
All of these fill a function in our culture’s spiritual life. The “megas” open the door and awaken the soul. The small gatherings reinforce the understandings and connection with others. The individuals walk daily the path that their souls have called them to.
What’s shrinking rapidly is the number of community churches or temples that used to have a couple hundred members and supported a leader and one or more assistants. In the current cultural climate, they either grow to become “megas,” shrink to become small spiritual support communities, or die. There is little room for inbetweens in a culture of extremes.
Another rapidly shrinking group of folks are those who deny spirituality completely, in the name of “rational science.” They’ve been called “scientific materialists” and “secular humanists.” This group is shrinking because there’s more and more scientific evidence that the spiritual (called “consciousness” in science) is the real, and that the material is an effect of the spiritual. Modern science is demonstrating rather conclusively that consciousness is not a product of the brain, but the other way around. That having been said, there are still many who confuse spirituality with the particular brand of religion they’re rebelling against from childhood, and so are slow to accept the evidence before them. They will sometimes attend services—often the small gatherings of the Unitarian-Universalist or Buddhist traditions—but they believe they do so for the community, not recognizing their need for the spiritual nourishment they receive there.
So the statistics are accurate: there is both a tremendous surge in certain religious activities and a great decrease in others. And it’s not really denomination or religion-based—all are being affected by this pattern. At the same time, there’s a constant growth in people claiming their spirituality in Europe and the U.S.—and, as we’ve seen, nourishing that spirituality in other ways than attending weekly services at the local church or temple.