The morning after: Relevant or retro?

Pundits’ questions about how Republicans can regroup following President Obama’s re-election might well be asked of faith communities.

By Bill Leonard

“Their relevancy has moved away from them.” That statement bubbled up on cable TV’s Morning Joe the morning after Barak Obama won re-election as president of the United States.

It was one commentator’s sound bite assessment of the Republican presidential defeat. Another analyst reported that President Obama received some 71 percent of the Latino vote to Gov. Mitt Romney’s 27 percent, solid evidence of a “demographic time bomb” already reshaping political parties and the country at large.

The ever-wizened Tom Brokaw observed that the Obama team ran “a postmodern campaign” while the Republican efforts were decidedly “retro,” reflecting old political approaches with limited long-term viability.

The ever loquacious Chris Matthews entered the commentary fray asserting that Americans should disavow the idea that big money (over $2 billion spent on the presidential campaign alone) can determine elections, as many seemed to think it would.

Political opinions abound on the morning after the night before.

Whatever their political implications, those fascinating responses on the morning after Obama’s re-election might also be asked of American religious communities. At this decisive moment of the nation’s life, has their relevancy “moved away from them?” What “demographic time bombs” lie implicitly or explicitly ahead? Are churches and Christian institutions necessarily “retro” in proclaiming a 2,000-year-old gospel, or are there certain “postmodern” resources for confronting current demographic and cultural realities?

A recent study released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life raises the issue of relevancy as seen in the declining percentage of Protestants in the U.S., a number now approximating 48 percent. While the actual number of Protestants remains about the same, they are outnumbered by non-Protestants for the first time in polling history. That development parallels the rise of the “nones,” those Americans who claim no discernable religious affiliation.

The Pew study suggests that the group of persons who consider themselves “nones” represents some 20 percent of the population, a dramatic increase in the last 10 years. Among persons age 18 to 22 those numbers rise to 30 percent, with one third of that age group claiming no religious affiliation. One Pew staff member told the New York Times that this was a unique phenomenon in polling since the non-affiliated reflected a smaller portion in previous generations.

Why is this happening and does it indeed imply that the church ceased to be relevant for a growing number of Americans? To paraphrase Brokaw, does it suggest a “retro” church in a “postmodern” world?

The Times article cited various explanations offered by Pew investigators for understanding the results of their study. One possibility is that the exodus of “nones” was precipitated by the political engagement of certain Protestants and Catholics in assorted controversies related to sexuality, church/state issues and family life.

Another possibility involves the decision of numerous Americans to distance themselves from participation in group or institutional experiences in general -- the so-called “bowling alone” phenomenon identified by sociologist Robert Putnam. Or perhaps it is further evidence of the long predicted expansion of secularism throughout the American population.

Faith-based communities might also ask if they have contributed to this religious disengagement, and explore the implications of such a “demographic time bomb” for America’s religious future. While the gospel itself has a haunting relevancy for every era of human history, the church as an institution has not always been relevant in doing the gospel, applying it to particular moments in time.

Where might questions regarding relevance begin?

First, churches might revisit their message. What exactly is the Jesus story and how is that story to be retold again and again, here and now? In a society where many have limited knowledge of the details, can Christian communities articulate that message with clarity, passion and compassion? Are certain elements of the Jesus story more relevant now than in the past?

Second, what does it mean to call oneself a Christian? What are the spiritual trajectories that may lead to vital faith?

Third, what does it mean to live as a Christian? What is the nature of Christian action -- spiritually and pragmatically -- in the world? Where does worship of and service to God intersect for living a Christian life in a postmodern world?

Fourth, what changes in the life and work of a contemporary congregation are necessary for extending the church’s mission and how will those changes impact the church’s message? Amid the changing sociology of Sunday, where will churches best engage affiliated and non-affiliated alike?

Finally, what communal needs or issues are important enough to unite disparate Christian communities in common effort? For example, might religious leaders across the theological spectrum join in calling politicians to reduce the huge sums of money poured into campaigns while urging donors, especially those who give millions, to contribute such funds to long-term community needs such as student scholarships, housing, or rehabilitation programs? Imagine what half of the $2 billion spent in this presidential campaign would have meant to the social and educational infrastructure of American society. What relevancy!

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.