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Is the U.S. about to see a religious awakening?


A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal carried this opinion column with this headline: "Thank God, American Churches Are Dying."

The headline, as many headlines are online these days, was simply click bait. The author, Ericka Andersen, a writer from Indianapolis, was not really thanking God for each church that dies. Rather, she was pointing out what many Wall Street Journal readers might not know, though it's been pretty common knowledge to the rest of the country: Alternative forms of worship are growing in the U.S.

In fact, there's one such successful alternative worshiping community right in my own congregation, The Open Table, which we have helped to birth and nurture, though we also offer more traditional weekly worship and programming.

Still, I'm glad the Journal is taking note of this not-very-new news.

"Those with denominational affinity," Andersen wrote, "will be sad to see a certain kind of church fall away. But the success of new models shows significant groups of people looking for ways to live faithfully, albeit in a less structured way. Could this really signify a religious awakening?" Well, maybe, maybe not.

She adds this as a reason for optimism: "Every recent generation has experienced significant post-high-school drops in church attendance, but most wayward youths return after marrying and having children. Given that the average age for marriage has increased seven years since the 1940s, it’s too soon to dismiss millennials as godless."

Again, maybe, maybe not. I'm guessing mostly not. At least not until later in life when some of those millennials discover that they not getting elsewhere -- community, moral strengthening, a sense of awe and wonder -- what faith communities can and do provide when they're healthy. Those benefits are hard to live without, and my guess is that eventually some millennials will turn to congregations to find them.

Religion in the U.S., the author asserts, "is far from dead. With a vibrant, new church landscape on the scene, there will be no shortage of options to choose from as millions of Americans again find their footing in faith."

I'd like to be around 50 or 75 years from now to see if she's right, but the actuarial tables suggest I won't be. What I do know is that there often is such resistance to change within traditional faith communities that they die slow but hard deaths. New worshiping communities will have to offer what those dying communities fail to. The unanswered question is whether they can be vibrant and flexible while also incorporating some of the traditional elements of worship and community that are required if the new gatherings are to be more than, say, spiritual book clubs.

(The photo here today shows the sanctuary of the Methodist church in central Illinois that my father attended as a boy -- and that his brother, who will turn 98 years of age next month, still attends.)

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Like many people around the world, I've long admired Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, who died last year. His idea that we so-called "normal" people could and should learn from people with intellectual disabilities was wise and life-giving. And he seemed to live that out. But as this Religion News Service column notes, "The recent revelations that from 1970 to 2005 Vanier had manipulated and sexually abused at least six women in the context of 'spiritual accompaniment' are as shocking as they are devastating." Are there no heroes? Are we all sinners? Well, yes we are. That's exactly what Christianity (and some other faith traditions) teach us. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans (3:10), “There is no one righteous, not even one." We forget that at our peril. We want to trust. We want to believe people are good. But we wind up naively injuring people if we don't put in place systems of oversight and accountability for everyone, even supposed saints. As the author of the RNS piece says, "We are fallen, broken, depraved creatures in desperate need of God’s mercy and grace. We must let that disturbing reality sink in. Profound sin lurks even within the best of us. Sometimes, as in this case, even horrible sin lurks within the best of us." True. Sigh. 

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P.S.: The annual Dialogue and Friendship Dinner, sponsored by the Dialogue Institute and the UMKC office of Diversity and Inclusion has been scheduled for Monday, April 20. The key note speaker will be the Rev. Jon Paul, author of Fetullah Gulen: A Life of Hizmet. Clicking on the first link here will take you to a site to get tickets.


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