The Jesus Proposal at Work

More and more people in the United States seem to have decided they can live without church. But be careful that you don’t misinterpret the meaning of that fact. It means something different in a postmodern world than it would have meant to someone rooted in modernity.

True enough, there are larger-than-ever numbers of Americans who say they are agnostic or atheist with regard to the existence of God. But those numbers still remain relatively low. Depending on the poll you cite, somewhere between 90% and 96% of people in this country still say they believe in a personal deity. Yet church attendance generally and identification with particular denominations hardly reflect so high a percentage of citizens. Only about 30% to 32% attend religious services on a weekly basis. Significantly higher percentages say they read the Bible or pray regularly. People are telling us they believe in God, read their Bibles, and pray; those same people who say they cannot live without God are nonetheless telling us they can live without church. If such a thought was foreign to moderns, it is not at all intimidating to postmoderns.

So what are we to make of these facts? Are they simply a jumble of inconsistent statistics? Perhaps the category “spiritual but not religious” that was used in a January 2002 USA Today/Gallup Poll helps a bit. It was a growth-group in the survey. Spirituality is growing in America, but church attendance and membership generally are not. In one of the regions of the country where religion – defined as an organized denomination or faith-group – has the lowest percentage of involvement, one 31-year-old churchgoer has offered an explanation of the behavior of his peers. “I totally understand my friends who hate church or think it’s boring or react negatively because of the formalities and customs,” he said. “They think it’s strange, stuffy, weird and ritualistic.”

People who are searching for God don’t sense they are being helped in their quest by the church. The church has become an obstacle to them rather than a guide to God or a meaningful herald of the kingdom of God. Citizens of a modern world criticized the church, sometimes switched churches, but most often accepted the conclusion that God could not be found apart from the church; “spiritual but not religious” would have smacked of self-contradiction. Not so for postmodern men and women; “spiritual but not religious” makes perfectly good sense to them – and is even a desirable option for increasing numbers of them. The problem is serious enough in today’s new thought categories that the following question has been raised by the press: “Will religion survive the spirituality boom?”

Note: Only summaries of the lessons in this series will appear online in text format. The full content of each sermon will be available in audio format.

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