If you're looking to help alleviate the suffering of AIDS victims or to assist those affected by a natural disaster, where do you direct your money? Where would you meet some new friends? Where can you find life's bigger picture? Would most people, especially 20- and 30-somethings, answer any of these questions with church, synagogue or mosque? Probably not, and here's why.
Consider what churches and other places of worship effectively communicate today, and what their business, nonprofit and political "competitors" offer prospective "clients."
Places of worship can excel at building community, but they face many challenges based on an increasingly graying demographic, and they face more competition than ever before. In D.C., where I live, hundreds of 20-somethings find communities in kickball leagues, at bars and in book clubs. And more often, Facebook and other social networks offer another kind of a community, providing a vehicle for exchanging ideas, engaging in conversation and finding like-minded people to create 21st century friendships.
Religious charities and religious people care for the sick, advocate for the poor, and challenge societal systems and structures that oppress the weak and marginalized. Religion provides accessible channels to those who feel it is their duty to serve others. But these opportunities are hardly unique to faith-based organizations. For every religious NGO, there are a couple secular competitors, many of which have huge communications and marketing budgets. The compulsion to serve and love humanity is not restricted to believers, and so while charity remains a compelling case for religion, it is not unique to it.
Some people attend worship for the entertainment value. A "well-performed" Mass, exceptionally delivered sermon or beautifully written prayers may speak to the depths of the human condition. But at the same time, expertly choreographed ballet may stir the soul, wit and comedy may lift broken spirits and engaging drama may elicit deep emotion. And entertainment is now but a click away. The television we watch plays on-demand and music and video travel with us always on our iPods. Where I used to live in New Haven, a local movie theatre offered a movie and mimosa special on Sunday mornings.
Worship and faith in God is quite effective at offering individuals the feeling that they are part of something larger than themselves. But increasingly, lots of other things are, too. Participation in political campaigns is a potent example. When President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008, his detractors accused him of exhibiting a messiah complex, and his supporters of blindly following The One (an amateurish web ad produced by Senator McCain's campaign, splicing in footage from The Ten Commandments, made this charge most explicitly). There was probably something to this accusation, though Obama would hardly be the only pol guilty of it. Today's lofty political rhetoric has an overtly religious sentiment. Politically minded individuals experience similar emotions listening to a moving campaign speech that a religiously minded person experiences during a homily or sermon.
Why should any of this matter to Christians, Jews and Muslims in the U.S.? Houses of worship, after all, aren't social clubs or charities or entertainment centers. They all offer something of value to their congregants, something unavailable from their "competitors." But many seem unable to articulate this. What I describe above, which at one time brought people to experience the fullness of their tradition, are no longer the draw they once were. This problem was not as urgent when options were more limited. But today, there are far more competing interests for an individual's time and commitment, and religious institutions must be able to show why what they offer is unique and worthwhile if they are to remain relevant and vibrant. If they are unable, there are campaigns, ideologies, businesses and charities that are clamoring for more souls to capture, without the slightest concern for empty churches, temples and mosques. Religious faith in America certainly has something to offer. Will it once again find its voice?