Many people inside the traditional church have assumed for far too long that a major contributing factor to the decline of Protestant church affiliation in the United States is because the music isn’t “contemporary.” As I read about a recent Pew study regarding the shifting dynamic of religion in the U.S. the phrase, “It’s not about the music,” bubbled up in my brain.
“Protestants now make up less than 50% of Americans and 20% claim no affiliation, up from 5% in 1972…The study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that Protestants make up 48% of the population compared with nearly two-thirds in the 1970s. “It’s a slow decline but a noticeable one,” said Cary Fund, a Pew senior researcher. Two thirds of the religiously unaffiliated still believe in God, but express disenchantment with religious organizations.” (LA Times, 10-10-12, AA1. See http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2012/10/protestants-no-longer-majority-in-us-study-finds.html for the full article.)
Theories abound as to why more and more of the population is spiritual but not religious. The vast majority of the unaffiliated, two-thirds of them, find Christianity in the United States to be rigid, rule oriented and downright hostile. These “unaffiliated” are turned off by the hate speech of church people who espouse “all gays are going to hell.” They are in favor of same-sex marriage and the loudest Christian voices in the market place are the voices that degrade and defame their friends, their family, or themselves. How are they supposed to know there are Christians who don’t share that social view?
The unaffiliated, 20% of the population, represents a cross section of society; dropping out of religious community life is evident across gender, income and educational levels. When the way gets hard, a typical response is to circle the wagons and retreat to a more conservative approach. We want to conserve what we have, what we know because the way forward is uncertain. The result is we act out of our fear.
The way forward, in our personal AND communal lives is more often better found when we act, not out of fear, but hope. Hope is a strategy, a Christian strategy. “Hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what she sees?” (Romans 8:24) Hope opens us to the imagination of God and the imagination of God within each of us.
Our congregation is a liberal Protestant church, part of the mainline tradition. We are liberal because we are open to reading our sacred text in light of what we know about the world: science, history, art, philosophy. We are liberal because we seek the theological truth in our sacred text, not the literal truth. We are liberal because we believe the Table of Christ is not a boundary to define who is in or out, but because it is an invitation to be part of God’s community of grace, regardless of what you can or can’t believe in the moment.
Protestant churches in the U.S. will not reach the spiritual but religious unaffiliated millions because they employ contemporary music. Protestant churches in the U.S will reach these people when we share the gifts of a liberal Christian faith with people who don’t even yet know there is community of faith to which they can belong.
Belonging is an essential human need, whether we recognize it or not. Every human being needs a place to belong among people with whom they can grow. None of us is fully human until we are human together.