Religious belief on the wane? Implications for the Episcopal Church

Yes, says Mark Chaves:

In “American Religion: Contemporary Trends,” author Mark Chaves argues that over the last generation or so, religious belief in the U.S. has experienced a “softening” that effects everything from whether people go to worship services regularly to whom they marry. Far more people are willing to say they don’t belong to any religious tradition today than in the past, and signs of religious vitality may be camouflaging stagnation or decline.

Bradley Wright says, “Don’t jump to conclusions.”

a decline might be overstating the case, and says polarization is a better description. He recently plotted survey data over the last 25 years recording what Americans say about the importance of religion in their lives. Those who say it’s extremely important have grown slightly, along with those who say it’s not at all important. But the number of people who said it was “somewhat” important dropped from 36 percent to 22 percent in about 20 years.

Mark Harris, who is a member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, has written two posts imagining our Church’s future. They are available here and here. He is writing in response to the financial shortfall anticipated in the coming triennial budget, but I think there are deeper issues at stake. In both of his posts, he imagines something other than the existing diocesan structure. In the first, he wonders how dioceses might band together on certain matters, administrative, programmatic, and even disciplinary (we’re attempting the latter here in Wisconsin). In the second, he advocates for more horizontal networking.

The deeper question is how does our Church re-imagine itself in a post-Christian context. We’ve inherited most of our structures from past generations–the institution building from the nineteenth and twentieth century, the diocesan structure from the early Church (well, actually from the Emperor Diocletian’s administrative restructuring of the Roman Empire in the 4th century), and the question is whether these structures can be adapted to fit a context where commitment to institutions, especially religious ones, is low.

It’s not just about the money, though it is about that. It is about reaching out and meeting people where they are at, being open and welcoming to people whose journeys bring them to us, for a few days, weeks, or years, and offering Christ’s love to people in places, and in ways, unconceived by past generations. The new media revolution allows us to imagine and create new ways of encountering and connecting people, new ways of being Christ’s body in the world, and old structures. old ways of doing things, old ways of thinking may  prevent us from seizing the opportunity.

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