Challenges on the American Religious Landscape – The Presbyter’s Pen

By Rev. Bob Reynolds, Executive Presbyter

By Rev. Bob Reynolds, Executive Presbyter

Presbyterians today are challenged by the changing American religious landscape, which clouds the church’s future. Rejection of religious institutions is increasing among people who, among other things, lost interest because of perceptions (right or wrong) that they are tradition-bound, hypocritical, and self-serving. Our churches face this contemporary cultural opposition in the context of long term institutional decline of mainline Protestantism.

Recently, the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life described the scope of this cultural opposition, which was published in the results of its religious preferences survey of 35,000 Americans. The report’s overall conclusion is, “Christians have declined sharply as share of population (also in absolute numbers); unaffiliated (individuals) and other faiths have continued to grow.”

Additional points are these:

  • While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.
  • The percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014.
  • The drop in the Christian share of the population has been driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics . . . The evangelical Protestant share of the U.S. population also has dipped, but at a slower rate, falling by about one percentage point since 2007.

Meanwhile, many churches throughout the Chicago Presbytery and elsewhere are innovating spiritual practices to strengthen inclusive and authentic Christian communities. They counter many oppositional perceptions.

In a wholly different historical context, the ancient church in Philippi, too, was facing opposition. The Apostle Paul’s advice to those Christians was to be persistent in their spiritual practices. He wrote, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Essential today for understanding Paul’s advice is his qualification about what things to continue doing. He did not direct the Philippians to do the same things simply because they have always done them. Rather, he urged them to be persistent in practicing what deepens faith and strengthens spiritual community. These are the things they learned from Paul.

In light of this, I recommend a book by Brian McLaren entitled, Finding Our Way Again (2008). After all, finding our way again amidst broad cultural opposition is what we seek. Looking ahead, McLaren commends to today’s churches seven ancient spiritual practices that have always been at the center of vital Abrahamic religions. They are:

  1. Prayer (individual and communal)
  2. Fasting (interrupts regularity and normalcy)
  3. Sabbath (rhythm of work and rest for everyone)
  4. Sacred meal (Lord’s Supper)
  5. Pilgrimage (journey into the unknown)
  6. Observing sacred seasons (retelling stories of the faith community’s foundations)
  7. Proportional giving (stewardship of resources)

McLaren advocates creative expressions. By designating them “ancient,” he does not assume we will practice them in well-worn ways. He would encourage fresh experiences that take us beyond our comfort zones to discover new spiritual vitality, deeper relationships, and dynamic Christian community.

Whatever the outcome across the American religious landscape, surely renewal in these ancient/contemporary practices will build interpersonal and communal life in congregations, strengthen the resolve to love our neighbors, and draw us closer to the God of peace.

More details on the study can be found online.

This article was originally published on page 2 of the June 2015 Our Common Ministry, the presbytery’s newsletter. Download the complete issue.

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