More Religion In America
A generation ago, observers noted that growing congregations were ones that gave clear (right and wrong) directions about life. These were homogenous gatherings. People essentially looked the same. Those gathered represented, shall we say, the same demographics.
Directions included moralistic edicts about the best and worst way to be, say, married, to manage finances, to raise children, to pray to God, and so forth. The rules were about life, yes, but the leaders of these growing congregations were clear. They were clear about what the Bible directs concerning the right way and the wrong way. Listeners agreed, for the most part, because they were from the same locus in life.
Exchange for moral direction was the not-so-veiled expectation that participants would raise their hands to support running the congregation. We need teachers, please sign up. Please serve on the building and grounds committee, we need you this year.
Now, a generation later we can do better.
Why not a community that gives more attention to your one and only life, and exploration of the world, than the needs of the institution? Why settle for being a volunteer when you could be where the action unfolds, where life sails to adventures unknown.
God’s dream is not congregational growth but the development of human beings.
Congregational life doesn’t have to be transactional. It can be transformative.
Rabbi Edwin Friedman said, “If you are going to preach, for heaven’s sake, make it about life.”
Why shouldn’t your congregation’s purpose provide trail markers of meaning, helping you navigate the ever-increasing demands of life?
Participation isn’t about right and wrong. Your participation in a congregation isn’t, without equivocation, accepting a particular ancient dogma. Instead, participation is about meaning-making today — now — not centuries ago.
Certainly, your congregation needs to pay attention to its organizational life. You need people attending to budgets, the condition of the facility, the Facebook page, the agenda for the board meeting, the proper equipment for live-streaming, and so forth.
Yet, if attention to operations subtracts from supporting your life (and the lives of people in the community and, indeed, the world), then you will feel (and it is a feeling) that participation lacks adventure.
This isn’t just about what is good for your soul.
Scientists identify a segment of the brain that encourages adventure. This segment is located in a primal area. This primal area comes alive when you experience adventure, the unknown, the precarious. This neuro-theological discovery demonstrates our propensity for sampling the unknown. God is found in the yet-to-be-experienced, the yet-to-be-explained.
When living life well (soul and brain) is not primary, your congregation becomes a membership organization in which the primary purpose is to recruit volunteers to sustain the organization (think recruitment of the finance committee). Those with a strong sense of obligation will stay engaged. Others will drift away and find adventure elsewhere.
Vigorous congregations direct attention to the brilliant multiplicity of life. Best practices don’t exist. Life is too complex and contextual. You might find yourself praying in idiosyncratic ways. You are free to ask essential questions (What does systemic racism look like?). Your congregation serves as a resource about any number of crucial matters: anti-racism, parenting, finances, justice, vocation, character-building, living with ambiguity, and for sure, how these matters shape your connection to the Divine.
No wonder an increasing number of congregations find that they don’t need a building. They don’t need volunteers. They go without a strategic plan. They meet at dinner tables, or near a garden, or in a neighbor’s basement.
During COVID-19, one pastor says, “We scraped the plans for a family life center. Instead, we will help people be, broaden their families. Nope, no building needed to do this. Let’s honor God by taking the walls down, rather than paying for more construction.”
What’s the risk if your congregation testifies about enigmatic epiphanies? The need for buildings, budgets, clean carpet, and new attendance sheets become secondary at best.
You feel (yes, it is a feeling) congregational life is more like summer camp, an anti-racism rally, or a spiritual retreat — than an institution.
It’s about life. It’s not about the congregation as an end unto itself.
What matters most in your life?
Ask (beg, borrow, and steal) your congregation to participate in your growth about such matters. It isn’t about the right or wrong way to live. Why draw such a boundary?
Instead, congregational participation is about your life, and the lives of others, with whom you share the world. All of it is messy, ambiguous, mysterious, and ultimately how developmental (rather than moralistic) character growth emerges.
Such a sense of belonging, learning, and growth is rare (particularly for adults). Yet, consider how your religious community can, and must, make room for meaning-making opportunities.
I feel (yes, a feeling) closer to the Divine Mystery at summer camp than I have at a congregational board meeting. I’ve experienced the Great Beyond in the holy space between and among others, not passively listening to a preacher who instructs one right way to live as a trade-off for serving as an institutional volunteer. It is like the Divine Mystery has escaped the building and is free-flying through the air.
As Frederick Buechner wrote a generation ago (has it been that long?),
Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.
Resources you can use
Though the #MeToo movement has brought greater media attention to sexual assault, it is not a new phenomenon. There are countless examples of congregations and denominations acting in ways that proved harmful to victims. Even the most well-intentioned leaders can inflict pain due to a lack of information and preparation.
The Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault has put together a host of resources for congregations seeking to get ahead of the game. As any great leader will tell you, the best plans are laid well before they’re needed. If your congregation would like information on working with law enforcement and other professionals to form Sexual Assault Response Teams, check out the SART guide. There are also other workshops and trainings offered through ICESA that congregations can take advantage of. Finally, to gain a better perspective on the ways sexual assault impacts victims, watch the Break The Silence video.
A critical presidential election looms before us. Christians want to play a constructive role and make a positive difference, but often are unsure how to get involved and what issues to address. Letters to the Church seeks to help the church:
- to think again about God’s presence and purposes in our lives and in the world
- to shine the light and language of our faith on issues and situations that diminish individuals and threaten our common life
- and to prompt us all to think about what it means to be the church in the face of these particular challenges and opportunities.
Designed for individuals and church study groups, the book begins with a letter to pastors and a letter to congregations. Pastors and congregations share a mutual vulnerability these days that is hampered by an inability or lack of interest in open, honest, faith-informed conversations.
What We Are Experiencing Now - letters in this section address the anxiety of often feeling on-edge and off-balance, the craving for certainty, the revival of deadly prejudices and unresolved grief.
What We Hope - readers can envision an inclusive American family portrait, the hope of trusting each other again, the desire to see courageous leadership exercised and the need for clarity between ethical commitments and political maneuvering.
What We Are Called To - letters encourage acts of confession and justice, careful and critical thinking, the need for allies, recognition of when to support and when to resist and a path for constructive engagement.
Each letter names a specific issue and describes the importance of that issue for our country and for this particular election season. Each letter concludes with reflections on “The Witness of the Church.”
Whatever the outcome of any heavily partisan election where money and shrill voices are likely to dominate, our first calling is to be the church, to be light to the world. Letters to the Church seeks to support the church in that vocation through re-centering ourselves, clarifying our commitments and engaging courageously.
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Religion In America
There are many issues which are unique to the United States. Many people who live in the U.S. are looking to create a brighter future and are struggling to address issues like racism, healthcare, education, and poverty. With the rising cost of living, some families within congregations are concerned that they might not always be able to make ends meet. This is why it would likely be beneficial for the leaders of congregations, churches, synagogues, temples and parishes across the USA to better understand these issues. The CRG is a great tool to help equip leaders of congregations with the right resources so they can begin addressing these issues and lead their congregations in the right direction.
A lot of people attend regular devotional meetings that speak on a variety of topics, including some of those mentioned above. There are also resources for study groups and programs available to individuals who would like to take a closer look at what religious texts have to say about some of these issues. Many local congregations will also set up outreach trips on a regular basis, enabling them to learn about and gain more insight into these issues by meeting with other congregations, serving the community, and reaching out for assistance. These are just a few of the many helpful resources available to religious congregations in the United States.
Largest Religion in the World
Those seeking resources for their local congregations may want to look at the religious landscape today. It can be extremely illuminating to take a closer look at the viewpoints of some of the world's largest religious groups. The largest religion in the world is Christianity, making up just over 30% of the population - therefore truly making it a religion which transcends international boundaries, impacting people all over the world without the need for translation. However, Christianity can also take many different shapes and forms, depending on the country in which you are located.
Christianity in the United States may not necessarily look the same as it does in another part of the world; Asians who practice this religion may practice it differently than Europeans. There are also those who practice this religion in Africa, where their traditions might be a little bit different. For this reason, it can be very helpful for congregations to understand and consider that there are different sects which make up Christianity, such as Protestantism, Catholicism and a number of other smaller groups. With this in mind, it can be good to try and view a particular religious congregation through the eyes of its geographical location. After all, many people tailor their faith to meet the unique challenges, opportunities and problems they are facing in their country.
Congregational leaders can learn greatly from viewing their own individual religion through the lense of their country, region, culture, denomination and more. Once they’ve discovered this information, they will be better able to understand why people believe what they do. Every country is a little bit different, and they are all facing different problems.
What Is the Fastest Growing Religion in the United States?
While there is a concern in some parts of the world that religion may be fading, the vast majority of religions are in fact still growing - and this is just as true in the United States as it is anywhere else. According to published records, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the fastest-growing religion in the United States, with its membership continuing to grow each decade since the beginning of the 1830s. It is also one of the top 10 largest Christian denominations in America; and in 2012, it was listed as the fastest-growing denomination in America.
Evangelical Protestantism is a dynamic religious movement, and between the years of 1960 and 2000, the number of reported evangelicals grew at three times the average rate of the world's population over that time span. Furthermore, it was also growing twice as quickly as the religion of Islam.
US Religion Statistics
Let’s look at some of the statistics regarding religion in the United States. According to Pew Research Forum, close to 70%of those in the United States follow Christianity.
About 25% of religious people in the United States identify as Evangelical Protestants;. close to 20% call themselves Catholics; and some of the other commonly-represented religions include mainline Protestants, Historically Black Protestants, Mormons, and Orthodox Christians. Of those remaining, about 22% of individuals report that they do not associate themselves with a mainline religious group; and the remaining 8% follow a different religion. The other world religions that are most identified in the United States include Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. These faith statistics can provide key information for congregational leaders.
Naturally, this is only a brief overview of religious statistics in the United States. There are many people in the U.S. looking for spiritual guidance, a religious community, an outlet for charitable works, or to hear the word of one of these major religions. People often turn to religious groups for help, and this is an opportunity for religious leaders to hear these needs and help. These resources can help leaders place themselves into a position to also be heard by those who need them.
Religion and Politics
The relationship of religion and politics is often a divisive issue. The Constitution of the United States requires a separation of church and state, meaning that church organizations are not in control of the United States government - and in turn, the government is not able to tax religious organizations.
Congregational leaders are in a unique position to encourage conversations, healthy dialogue and offer respect for differing opinions. The same extends to discussing and engaging in political exchange within the congregation. Religious leaders can act as helpful guides to differing opinions about religion and politics in America.
It may also be useful for religious leaders to be aware of what is going on in the current political environment of the United States and across the globe, and then find ways in which they can bring people together and find common ground. They can facilitate interactive discussion and encourage caring, kindness and tolerance, as well as provide helpful information for navigating the current problems of the world.
Religious Trends in the United States
While there may seem to be some cause for concern regarding religious trends in the U.S., the good news is that religion is alive and well in this country. Congregations are very healthy, with good leadership, and there are numerous opportunities and valuable resources available for religious leaders to amplify their messages, find new people and welcome them into their congregations.
Pastors, clergy, rabbis, imams, priests and ministers can all be relevant, innovative and inspirational, encouraging healthy conversations, caring community and outreach to those in need.