Is Institutional Faith Becoming Obsolete?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 3, 2013

(First in a March Lenten series titled “Contemporary Issues of Faith”)

Luke 18:1-8 GNT

Well, first the bad news.  “1 in 5 are without religious affiliation.”  “[Is this] The end of religion?”  “Meet the ‘Nones’: An Emerging Force.”  Such are three recent newspaper and magazine headlines.  In a fourth magazine article, Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, begins by asking, “What religious group do you think is the fastest growing religion in America?  Evangelical Christians?  Nope. . . .  Muslims? No . . . .  Catholics? No again. . . .  the religious group that is growing by leaps and bounds is the ‘nones’—people with no religious connection.”  Morales reiterates, “The fastest growing religious group in America is, by far, the ‘nones.’”1 

The USA Today article titled “1 in 5 are without religious affiliation” begins by stating “Unbelief is on the uptick.  People who check ‘None’ for their religious affiliation are now nearly one in five Americans (19%), the highest ever documented, according to the Pew Center for the People and Press.  The rapid rise of ‘Nones’” includes “atheists, agnostics and those who say they believe ‘nothing in particular’.”2  Why this rise in the number of “Nones”?  There seems to be a number of reasons.  “Young people are resistant to the authority of institutional religion, older people are turned off by the politicization of religion, and people are simply less into theology than ever before. . . .  Nones in 1990 . . . were 6% of U.S. adults.  By a 2008 survey, Nones were up to 15%.  By 2010, another survey, the bi-annual General Social Survey, bumped the number to 18%. . . .  The 19% count is based on aggregated surveys of 19,377 people conducted by the Pew Research Center throughout 2011.”2  But here is another startling statistic: “A 2009 Pew Forum look at ‘switching’ found more than 10% of American adults became Nones after growing up within a religious group.”2  That statement alone should cause churches and denominations to ask some questions about what is right and what is wrong with today’s religious institutions.

Yet, another article published last fall in the Knoxville News Sentinel noted that “the so-called ‘Nones’ appears to pose a new threat to the declining ‘seven sisters’ of liberal Protestantism.”3  That is, the largest seven “liberal” denominations in America, which includes United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Episcopal Church, American Baptist, United Church of Christ, and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  This article, likewise, notes that “One-fifth of the U.S. public—a third of those under 30—is now religiously unaffiliated. . . The unaffiliated have risen from just over 15 percent of the adult population to nearly 20 percent in five years.”3   So that is the bad news.

Well, turning to the Bible in the passage I read from Luke, the gospel writer has Jesus ask at the conclusion of the parable of the widow and unjust judge, “Will the Son of Man find faith on earth when he comes?” (Luke 18:8).  The meaning of the word “faith” in that text in its original Greek is really “faithfulness” or “steadfastness.”  So in the way that Luke has framed it, what Jesus is asking is will the Son of Man find the faithfulness or steadfastness of the poor widow who would not give up?  And so, the contemporary question regarding religious faith in America is, Is religious faith (faithfulness or steadfastness) waning?  Decreasing?  Becoming obsolete?

But when we use the word “faith,” what are we really talking about?  “Faith” can mean several different things.  For instance, by “faith” we could mean a system of beliefs, ancient creeds, orthodox doctrines, or confessions of faith.  Or by “faith” we could mean adherence to a particular church or religion, such as the Protestant faith, or Catholic faith, or Muslim faith.  Or by “faith” we could mean spirituality and reverence for or trust in God or the Sacred, apart from either of the first two.

Well, I began by sharing what would appear to be bad news to those of us who have given our lives to the Church, institutional faith, if you will. But is there any good news in all of this?  After all, isn’t that what sermons are to be about—the sharing of good news?  “Christopher Partridge, a scholar of contemporary religion, “tells us that even though ‘traditional institutional religion is on the decline in the West,’ that doesn’t mean that religion is going to disappear.”4  In other words, religion or faith is not necessarily disappearing, but it definitely is changing.  Or as predicted by Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, faith is “on the cusp of a religious renaissance.”5

Peter Morales writes, “The ‘nones’ may be rejecting the religious institutions they know, but they are not rejecting spirituality and religion.”  Morales cites a recent “survey of students taking religion courses at Harvard.  By far the greatest number of them identified no religious identity.  And yet these are students choosing to take courses in religion.”1  “’Nones’ are highly skeptical of any one religion claiming sole possession of all truth.”  Yet, they may also prove to be more open and tolerant.  And though they may even believe “nothing in particular” (13.9%), they’re still open to spirituality.6  The recent Pew Forum survey found that of the so-called “Nones,” 68% believe at least somewhat in God or a higher power; 41% say they pray; 23% consider religion at least somewhat important in their life; . . . and 58% say they feel ‘a deep connection’ with nature and the Earth.”  Nones may “prefer to stress the importance of acting with compassion rather than choosing a predetermined system of beliefs.”6

Well, where does all of this leave us?  Can we draw any positive conclusions from all of this data?  I think we can.  I think we can wring some good news out of the daily headlines about current trends in religious practice in America.  So here are my conclusions:

Though many are falling away from institutional religious authority, I still think there is a place for churches like this United Church, churches that can read the signs of the times and respond appropriately.  We are an independent, congregationally-governed church that is not connected to any church hierarchy.  That is a good thing, as it is the trend in the American church today.  New churches that are being established in America today often are independent churches.  We do not proclaim dogma, creed, or doctrine.  Rather, one of our mottoes is “a church for those of all faiths and those of uncertain faith,” something that appeals to the Nones.  One of the foundations of the United Church is openness and tolerance, something else that is important to many of today’s “Nones.”  We tend to focus more on spirituality and shy away from orthodoxy.  Many “Nones” feel a deep connection to nature or Earth spirituality.  So do many in this United Church.  One of the defining characteristics of this congregation is compassion, something that is important to many “Nones,” especially young adults.

So, while commitment to institutional religion may be waning, the important place of churches like this United Church and the principles that we hold dear and the characteristics that define us will always be vital, I believe.  But the key is recognizing and making known and living out the principles and defining characteristics that are important to us and also important to a changing population that has been disappointed by institutional religion.

So, let us determine to be who we are—an independent congregation, open and tolerant, a church for those of all faiths and uncertain faith, committed to spirituality, and guided by compassion.  This is what many of today’s Nones are looking for.  And may we also determine to make such known to the community around us.  Amen.

1Peter Morales, “Engaging the ‘nones,’” UU World, Winter 2012.

2Cathy Lynn Grossman, “1 in 5 are without religious affiliation,” USA Today, July 20, 2012.

3Knoxville News Sentinel, Oct. 13, 2012.

4uuworld.org, Aug. 15, 2011.

5Christian Century, February 6, 2013.

6Cathy Grossman, “Meet the ‘Nones’: An emerging force,” USA Today, October 9, 2012.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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