Last Sunday I taught a class at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., the second of a two-part conversation entitled, “Retelling the Jesus Story in a Post-Modern, Pluralistic, Post-Protestant-Privileged World: Who’s Listening?”The topic, sent in weeks earlier, was of course a crowd-baiting thesis ending in a predictable rhetorical question. But when the day rolled around, the question had gone from cute rhetoric to stark reality. Who’s listening to American religious communions? Apparently fewer and fewer people every year.
A new PRRI study, released Sept. 22, asserts that, “Today, one-quarter (25%) of Americans claim no formal religious identity, making this group the single largest ‘religious group’ in the U.S.” Even more disturbing for religionists is the study’s declaration that: “Today, nearly four in ten (39%) young adults (ages 18-29) are religiously unaffiliated — three times the unaffiliated rate (13%) among seniors (ages 65 and older). While previous generations were also more likely to be religiously unaffiliated in their twenties, young adults today are nearly four times as likely as young adults a generation ago to identify as religiously unaffiliated.”
And what reasons do religiously-distanced persons provide for leaving or never engaging religious communities? The PRRI report indicates such things as: “they stopped believing in the religion’s teachings (60%), their family was never that religious when they were growing up (32%), and their experience of negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people (29%).”
The phrase, “they stopped believing in the religion’s teachings,” should send shock waves into every faith community in the U.S., across the theological spectrum. “Once-born” churches that nurture children to faith through a sacramental-confirmation tradition confront a society where fewer families are bringing their children into such spiritual environs. Thus an increasing number of children grow up never knowing much about the Jesus Story. “Twice-born” churches face a culture where their message of conversion and new birth often seems less likely to engage the belief systems of those in “the single largest ‘religious group’ in the U.S.”
This is not to suggest that churches and other religious communions are not thriving or “doing the gospel.” Many are. But if the PRRI and other recent studies suggest anything, it is that an ever increasing number of Americans (the number of non-affiliated expands with almost every poll) are no longer listening to the church, or they’ve been listening but don’t like what they hear.
After class at St. Paul’s, I grabbed a quick sandwich and spent the next two hours attempting to register new voters outside Gate 10 at the annual Dixie Classic Fair. Gate 10 was a microcosm of America itself — Anglo Saxons, Latino/Latinas, African Americans, Asians, and maybe even a few “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia” and Forsyth County, showing up all day-of-Pentecost-like to eat deep fried Hostess Twinkies, pork chops on a stick, or chicken and waffles, and perhaps to check out the livestock, or ride the rides.
Most folks indicated they were already registered, though a few said they didn’t “believe” in voting at all. A few confessed that they were not yet citizens, but hoped to be. Others just looked away and hurried into the fairgrounds, no questions asked.
Driving home, I recalled Annie Dillard’s observation on the human condition: “A hundred million of us are children who live on the streets. A hundred twenty million live in countries where we were not born. Twenty-three million of us are refugees. … Two thousand of us a day commit suicide” How many of the people I asked to register at Gate 10 represent those statistics, now or in the future?
Two days later, I dutifully went to weekly chapel at the School of Divinity of Wake Forest University where senior master of divinity student Nicole Newton was preaching. The text, from Psalm 137, asks: “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
Next thing I knew, Nicole had moved from exiled Israel to the foreign land of America, reminding us that sandwiched between two African American men shot in Tulsa and Charlotte is the story of a 6-year-old gunned down in his South Carolina elementary school with a 14-year-old accused of pulling the trigger. Such violence is so pervasive, the Divinity School preacher insisted, that we’ve become numb to the violence around us, particularly where gun violence is concerned; so numb, she said, “we need help feeling our feelings again.” I said “Amen” out loud.
Rather than whining about our losses, perhaps we should commit ourselves anew to retelling and reliving the Jesus Story in its innumerable gospel forms — doing that gospel whether anybody notices or not. Thomas Merton calls us out, writing, Christ’s “place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, … tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.”
If that Jesus Story can’t respond to the unbearable sorrow of a first-grader’s grieving family, the disorder of a teenage assailant, and the firearm idolatry of a culture, then the rest of us might as well relinquish “believing in the religion’s teaching” too, and find other ways to negotiate being at home in a woefully inhospitable and increasingly foreign land.