Last week, the Pew Forum released a study showing that Christianity's numbers have declined drastically over the past seven years. There have been numerous articles written to suggest reasons for the downswing in Christian affiliation, but very few of those pieces have addressed the problem of anti-intellectualism in American churches.
The unsavory truth is that a large number of people leave organized Christianity because they are unable to find an adequate bridge between faith and reason within church walls. Many leave because they are bored with what churches teach, unable to find like-minded people in their congregations, and feel unsupported in their efforts to grow spiritually.
This problem won't be an easy one to address, but one thing's for sure: Churches will need to find new ways to engage today's curious, information-driven population if they plan to reverse the current trend. Here are three ways to start:
- Become a safe space for spiritual evolution. Many Christians embrace doctrine wholeheartedly, only to feel disillusioned when their personal perspectives begin to change. Of course, these changes often lead to "doubt"-- a normal element of every person's faith. Churches have historically responded to "doubt" by casting a shadow of shame on those who entertain it, or by discouraging exploration altogether. However, a better response from churches would be to accept that faith and doubt are both part of the spiritual journey, and to develop programs that can support people through the varied stages of religious life.
- Make religious education a priority. Broadening and prioritizing our religious education programs will help churches deepen their congregation's interest in scripture, dispel prejudices rooted in narrow scripture interpretations and open paths to life-giving theologies. It will also open channels of communication so that "questioners" will have a safe space within their own faith communities to express curiosity.
Churches should themselves teach the full history of Christianity, the phenomenon of syncretism in Early Christianity, and the evolution of Christian doctrine. Responsible religious education programming should include courses about how Christian philosophies have been used to free and oppress people throughout history. Churches should themselves engage curious members in discussions about how the Bible was translated and how the books of the Bible were canonized. Churches should even introduce their members to the Bible's languages if they have the capacity to provide this kind of training. If churches would broaden their religious education programming, they could become hubs for robust, diverse, inviting and potentially lifelong conversations about spirituality.
- Embrace a more nuanced concept of "belief". As numerous scholars have noted, the word "believe" had a very different meaning for early Bible readers than the definition we know today. The word believe had nothing to do with agreeing with a set of propositions. Rather, believe was one form of the word belove, and meant "to give one's heart" or even "to give oneself". The word believe was not about thinking; it was about action. The function of doctrine should not be to restrict the practice of thinking; the function should be to engender love for humankind. People are independently identifying this disconnect in astounding numbers. The pews in many churches are becoming empty because many Americans are thinking differently about what it means to follow Jesus. Those pews could very well fill again if the focus of our churches shifted from mental assent to community engagement. We must retire the urge to say, "Let me tell you what I believe," and we must learn to say, "Let me show you what I belove."
In recent generations, churches have traded choral music for Christian rock bands, phone trees for Facebook and Twitter, and paper handouts for Sunday morning PowerPoint presentations, all in efforts to maintain relevance. However, most who have left the faith over the past decade haven't done so because they've wanted their churches to adopt additional cosmetic changes. They've left because their questions and curiosity were ignored, because their needs weren't being met, and because churches never seem to evolve intellectually.
We now live in an age when many choose their religious affiliation (or lack thereof) after thinking deeply about their choices. Christianity's numbers will continue to dwindle unless we meet the current generation of thinkers and choosers with a more open, compelling and life-giving set of options. Now is the time for churches to embrace and teach innovative theological perspectives, whether or not they're ready.
Crystal St. Marie Lewis is a writer and speaker whose interests include religion, liberal theology, secularization and the world in which we live. An advocate for inter-religious dialogue, Crystal earned her Master of Theological Studies degree (focus: World Religions) at Wesley Theological Seminary and a graduate certificate in Muslim/Christian Dialogue via the Washington Theological Consortium. Please be sure to follow Crystal on Twitter, Facebook and her website, Window on Religion.