The challenge of the 44%

By Andrew T. Gerns

The beauty of research like the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey released this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is that in many ways it tells us what we already knew. The survey has confirmed and challenged a few hunches that arise out of my experience as a parish priest.

It is not particularly news to me that America’s life of faith is defined by fluidity. All I have to do is look out from the pulpit every Sunday. In my own parish, I have four basic groups of parishioners: people who used to be Catholic, people who used to be Lutheran, and people who used to be something else—they grew up in one of a myriad of other Christian traditions. Oh, I almost forgot, the fourth group of people are the ones who grew up and remain Episcopalian. That’s the smallest group in my own parish. And even then, there ought to be an asterisk because most of the folks who grew up Episcopalian were the children of parents who were themselves raised in another tradition.

Statistically speaking, I am the odd duck: a cradle Episcopalian who is the son and the son of a son of cradle Episcopalians.

So fluidity is a defining mark of American religious life. Forty-four percent of Americans belong to a religious group or tradition that is different than the one they grew up in.

But we live in an age where loyalty to brand or institution is a thing of the past. I remember visiting the Harry Truman presidential library, and one of the exhibits is a sampling of some of the cars that Truman owned. They were all Plymouths. He described himself as a “Plymouth man.“ Outside of the fact that they don’t even make Plymouths anymore, the idea of being eternally loyal to one make of car is a rare thing. Manufacturers are excited when they can get a buyer to stay with the same company, let alone the same brand, two cars in a row. And that’s not just true of cars.

I remember once meeting a self-described Episcopalian, who spoke with the pride of familiarity of things Prayer Book and his time as acolyte and the member of a Canterbury Club in college, telling me that he goes to a Lutheran Church. Why? Because it was closer to his house, he could walk or jog there, the service time was better and the kids knew kids who went there.

Speaking to a former Roman Catholic in my parish, she told me, partly in jest, the reason she is an Episcopalian is that our church doesn’t work so hard to make her mad. But that runs both ways. I remember talking to a United Methodist who used to be a member of my church; he told me that things our denomination did just “made me mad.”

Of the mobile 44%, roughly half choose to go to another Christian tradition. The other half leave the church altogether, with only a tiny fraction of those go to another religious tradition. Most of this other group completely drops out of religious life.

We should have seen this coming—and many of us have but have been at a loss to come to terms with it. The question now is how we respond. Seems to me that there two choices: we can be reactive or we can listen to what the culture is telling us and work to make the Gospel comprehensible and compelling in a free-market of ideas driven by personal freedom.

The reactive comes in many forms, but it is to me essentially an exercise in trying to hold back forces bigger than us. In trying to preserve what the past and its ways teach us, we can overdo it.

Overdoing it has recently landed on my pastoral lap. I have one member whose husband is Roman Catholic and they are raising their kids in both churches. They wouldn’t call it that, but they are. The kids go to parochial school but they go to church with either one parent or the other depending on work, sports and activity schedules. Mostly they go the Roman parish, but at least once a month, they show up in our parish. I didn’t think twice about it but I have been pulled in pastorally because the pastor at the Catholic Church is pressuring the family to only bring the kids to his congregation. This not only tears at Mom’s heart—and risks breaking covenants the couple made with each other at the time of their marriage in that very same church. It is also forcing the kids to choose not only between religions but, in effect, between parents. All of this is because the kids are hearing from the Catholic priest that they may only receive Communion in that church and no other. At the same time, they hear from me and my church that they are welcome to receive because they are baptized. The mixed message is causing the kids to ask uncomfortable questions at home.

This is a crisis happening in slow motion. For the family, the conflict is causing them to think ahead to an anticipated moment of truth where they will either have to choose one tradition over another, or else drop out altogether. I do what I can to keep the lines of communication open to both parents.

My conversations with the priest of the other church have been as revealing as they are frustrating. The priest is from Africa, which complicates matters. We don’t speak the same cultural language, and he sees only threat coming from my concern that we might work together. Besides the fact that he won’t say out loud his assumption that his tradition has primacy over mine, his basic argument is that he must “hold the line” for the sake of both the family and the Church.

He does not seem to realize that in pushing them to make one kind of commitment—one that might have made sense in another time or another cultural context—they might make a completely different choice. I am afraid that if he doesn’t lighten up they could choose another religious community (maybe mine, but just as easily another more neutral one) or none.

In our history there have been lots of American religious movements that have sought to “hold the line” against some cultural movement that was marching right past them. The current political transformation of American evangelicalism is an example of the tension between “holding the line,” with its desire to return to a more structured “past” (if one ever existed), and the need younger evangelicals have for religion to speak to the culture we have instead of the culture we choose.

In the face of a religious marketplace of ideas where people are free to explore, to go where they want, for whatever reason they want. I believe there is a difference between “holding the line” and articulating values that answer the traps, contradictions and realities of a culture that emphasizes absolute individual choice and responsibility over the values of community and tradition.

So what’s a church to do? If we don’t “hold the line,” what alternative do we have?

For one thing, we must become proficient at the language of the marketplace of ideas we live in. Like every human endeavor and institution, we tend to fight yesterday’s battles. We mainline churches tend to act as if we were still the bastions of privilege and status that we were before blue laws and civil religion went away. Recently, I had the chance to speak to the local Church Women United Lenten service. It was a chance for me to realize that speaking to yesterday’s church in yesterday’s language is not a problem restricted to Episcopalians.

Another thing we can do is to change our approach to evangelism. Since people are more likely to move between traditions for all kinds of reasons ranging from conscience to convenience, I believe we should adapt an attitude that is at once more clearly defined and more generous. We should be clearer about who we are and what we offer as Episcopalians, and we should acknowledge that people choose their faith communities for a variety of reasons and that, as wonderful as we are, we might not be the right place for everyone. Whereas denominationalism used to be defined solely in terms of governance and doctrine, today it may be seen as a diversity of styles and emphases.

In terms of the Gospel mandate to go into the world, to baptize and teach, we need to decide if the goal is to make more Episcopalians or to invite more people to Christ. I would suggest that the first is about institutional survival and preserving the past; but the second allows us the freedom to be at once who we are at our best and to give people the freedom—in a culture that trains us to make individual choices in the context of a competitive marketplace—to first choose faith, and then choose the community within which to nourish it.

The most difficult thing for a congregation that assumes a kind of brand loyalty will be to learn how to discover stability, purpose and renewal when we live in a mobile culture. We may need to content ourselves that we will be places of spiritual stability…for now.

Our biggest challenge will be for us Christians to see ourselves as one church with many, diverse institutional expressions: where having people know and follow Christ is more important than what flavor church they belong to.

The fluidity of American religious life drives us to be both better differentiated and more generous. This requires us to hold on to a tension. We must be clear about what we proclaim and yet let go and give the outcome to God. Our task is to proclaim and invite and to give to God the task of transformation and conversion.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pa., and chair of the Evangelism Commission of the Diocese of Bethlehem. He is keeper of the blog Andrewplus.

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