Tag Archives: shifting culture

Changing American religious landscape – what does it mean for pastors?

“In times of great change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer.

Recently, Pew Research Center released their findings of the changing religious landscape (More can be found here).

Changing U.S. Religious Landscape

What is clear is that Christianity is declining in all forms including conservative, progressive, and liberal forms.

The nones are by far the fastest rising group.

As a seminary student I am well aware that I am pursuing a vocation in a rapidly changing world where fewer people will be going to church. Also, I personally know many people who have ceased to go to church. While some of them would consider themselves “nones,” some of them just think the church is not what it is suppose to be. Some view the church as to dogmatic, hierarchical, opposed to questions or doubts, anti-science, homophobic, etc. (I honestly resonate more with this group than most people who go to church).

Many of these people are close friends, and I have little desire to pressure them into going to church. It may actually be the best thing for someone to stop going to church because they may need to detox from some bad theology. Maybe they have been hurt and they need some time to heal. Or maybe they have been taught neatly packaged answers that no longer work for them and need to find other ways of seeing things. That being said, I still believe that there is much formative power found when people gather together, share life, and pursue the divine.

What does the study of the decline of Christianity in America mean for me and for those of us who sense a call to be pastors in a shifting culture?

The shifting culture forces us to be creative, and I think that is actually a good thing.  I am really excited to continue the journey of learning how to be a Christian in the 21st century and how to find ways to speak about spirituality in new and fresh ways.

We must either change, or we will die.

Change is difficult and complex. Often, in the church, we want to find clear answers and create neat boxes for everything, but change forces us to rethink, to ask questions, and to be open to different ways of seeing. Some have been given a static belief system, but God is not static.

“In times of great change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer.

Here is one of my struggles. Too many Christians, (and I am still guilty of this I’m sure) speak the language of the Bible without translating it into the 21st century. We have answers to questions that either no one is asking, or the answers no longer make sense. Many are equipped for a world that no longer exists.

Part of the shifting culture is generational. From my experience, there is a growing number of young people, primarily millennials, who do not relate to “business as usual” in the church. We want a gospel that is really “good news” and is not just transactional theology. We want to be inspired to partner for justice and peace, and to be given places to do that. We want something that doesn’t feed our ego and create distinct tribal boundaries of who is “in” and who is “out,” but is open, inclusive, and willing to work with diverse people. We want a God that matters now, not just sometime when we die.

Above all though, I think many are frustrated with a religious tradition that is suppose to cultivate an awareness of the sacred in everyday life, but has actually done the opposite. Much of religion has actually pushed people into binary ways of seeing.

So “going to church” is sacred, but “going to work” is secular. Evangelism means proselytizing, but working for justice and peace is seen as something else. Trying to escape this world to go to heaven instead of finding ways to bring heaven to earth. Claiming one religion contains absolute truth while all other religions are completely false. Having to choose between science and evolution or the Bible.

Many feel forced to choose as if it has to be either/or.

I have recently struggled with my calling, and much of this has been because of the shifting culture, but also because of the shift happening internally. Right now, I sense more than ever, that I am called to be a pastor, but that is both frightening and exhilarating in light of the declining church membership. Frightening, because for the last few generations at least, pastors were entering into a fairly stable and growing field. A person knew what they were getting into, and knew what it would look like. Now, those of us entering into this vocation have no certainty, other than the certainty that things will look very different in the future. This is also exhilarating because we get to be a part of the change. That means we get to help shape the future in ways that were not possible a generation ago. Religion, Christianity, and Church, will look different for our children, our grandchildren, and our great grandchildren and we get to be a part of this shift.

I don’t know what that all means or what that will all look like, but I suspect that a big part of this will be bringing together binary views. I think the future will embrace questions and doubts and will not see them as opposed to faith. I think the future will embrace the sacred in all of life. I think the future will bring together the heart with the head into an intellectually honest, but deeply spiritual way (I wonder if this will mean bringing together the intellectual and the mystical traditions – in a way bringing together the East with the West?). I think the future will bring together science and faith in a beautiful way. I think the future will bring together people of different beliefs and religions to work toward a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world.

In many ways, the church and culture in America is in a liminal space where the old doesn’t work, but the new is unknown.

So while Christianity and church attendance may be declining, I believe that God is moving in very powerful ways (maybe in ways that force the church to change). I think the question for those of us who are leaders, is if we will be open to embrace this movement or if we will be closed and thus will become more and more irrelevant.

So, the future is bright to those who are willing to be flexible and find creative, new, and fresh ways of living in a changing world. While many of us have been equipped for a world that no longer exists, if we are open and curious to explore new ways, we can be a part of creating something new and different.

I believe the future is very bright!