OPINION

The Flatlander

Tough Milestone For Church

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Religion is a slippery slope.

I’m going to write about it, anyway.
We’re becoming close enough friends now, you and I, that we can discuss these things in a civil manner, and still walk away friends.

If ever there was a warning sign pointing to the breakdown of an idea the New Testament gospels say is vitally important to a life of faith, this is it. The birthplace of community is dwindling in numbers across the Christian landscape.

It’s the Church.

People are turning away from it. So much so that any arguments about the United States being a “Christian nation,” (it’s really not set up that way, anyway) will become increasingly difficult to make.

According to new Gallup Poll research, fewer than 50 percent of Americans now say they are members of a church, mosque, or synagogue. It is a historic milestone -- the first time this has happened since Gallup asked the question in 1937 when church membership was reported at 73 percent.

The polling firm also found that the number of people who said religion was very important to them has fallen to 48 percent, a new low point in the polling since 2000.

Gallup reported many Christians still attend church but do not consider membership as important, especially those who attend non-denominational churches. But no matter how researchers measure people’s faith — such as markers of attendance, giving, or self-identification, it is clear — Americans’ attachment to institutional religion is on the decline.

Interestingly, the seeming secular trend doesn’t seem to manifest itself in outright atheism.

While the rate of church membership is now below 50 percent, the level of religious affiliation remains above 70 percent. In fact, the steady, 20-year decline in church membership among the religiously affiliated indicates a significant gap between “believing” and “belonging.” We are becoming a non-practicing, non-community of faith.
The danger in all this is an evolving religious community that shapes and reshapes a message to believe whatever it wants – whatever suits it – whatever fits. Our fundamental beliefs of the past may become relative truth at their best.

At the risk of you thinking less of me, I will share this with you: I am a statistic.
For the record, I am about as Southern evangelical as you get. I like biscuits and gravy in the morning. Sweet tea is my drink of choice. There is no silence in my brain, but a default kind of quiet that rings with cicadas at the dusk of a sticky August night. I am a child of the Delta dirt. If we use labels, which I generally oppose, theologically, I am somewhere between a moderate Southern Baptist and a conservative Methodist.

But in February of 2020, well before churches began closing as a result of COVID, I walked away. And with the exception of an Easter visit to church with my mom, I’ve not been back. There are no plans for going back. The truth is I wouldn’t know where to go, or what to do.

And the idea of speed-dating with church again at this stage of life makes me ill.
I am trying to live it now. Not just go to it.
And it’s not completely accurate saying I left the church, really. By all accounts, the church left me. I am an orphan evangelical. There are a dozen ways you can discount those words. I know them all. None would be true. There’s just not enough room here for the entire story.

The undeniable merging of religion and politics is a basis for it all. I remember its birth with the Jerry Falwell-lead moral majority movement of the 80s. It was nothing more than another group seeking influence and secular power. The movement escalated a hundred-fold during that last four to five years as many evangelicals would excuse any behavior, any misdeed, any insult, any degree of juvenile name calling for the sake of power and progress.

I’ve watched the church that shaped me as a young person and taught me and my generation the values of compassion, and humility, and charity, toss those values aside in exchange for affirming boundaries, braggadocio, and the misconceived rights of self above all other things.

It’s as if our church dreamed up an exclusive Kingdom hierarchy that simply exists nowhere in the evidence of the Christian faith. Our faith, if anything, is big-tent, all-inclusive.

We have shouted it from the mountaintops, “America first!” I challenge you to show me this as some Christian notion.

But if you want to get real, I’ll tell you what pushed me out of church. A conversation with my last pastor nearly two years ago inevitably turned to the difficulty of politics and religion. When I suggested how difficult it must be to lead a thousand people who were so severely fragmented in their world view, he replied with this in an unguarded moment:

“Steve, if I got up there and told the truth, half of the church would walk out and never come back.” I’m sure the words came out of his mouth before his brain had time to filter them.

You’ve got to tell them the truth, anyway.
If the Church can’t be about truth, why do I want to spend my time there? Time and truth are too valuable to waste.

See you in next week’s newspaper.

(Steve Watkins is a reporter/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at steve@stonecountyleader.com)

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