Mainline religion is in decline. In a recent Barna study only 2 in 10 people under 30 believed church was important and 96% of young people will never go to church. Another study showed less than 30% of Americans attend a religious institution more than 1 time per month and that number declines at 1-2% per year.
These startling statistics beg the question: “Why?”
The church’s response is to blame the culture. As moderns opt out of the Sunday show, the church interprets this as a rejection of God. But is this really the case? While some churches adapt their music, preaching, and programs to suit modern families, the changes are mostly superficial. Most are the same old cake with different frosting.
We all know a devout church goer who insists that their church is not like all the others. We see the posts of pastors who fight back by doubling down on their theology of fear. We’ve all been to the coffee shop that turned out to be another ministry. We’re tired of hearing about community for the sake of community. Why aren’t all these things working?
While good things can happen through the present system, they often mask the fundamental problem, namely, the portrait of God depicted is flawed.
I quit going to church 5 years ago not because I lost my faith, but because I could clearly see that the church delivery system was not a solution for most modern Americans. I couldn’t reconcile a belief for Sunday that was unbelievable by my peers during the week. I’ve learned that people love to talk about God, but not with church goers. This was my clue that the culture hadn’t moved away from God, but from any religion that tried containing God in a box. God has to be larger than present consciousness and for most of religion, it’s not.
We can’t update our kitchen without taking out the old one. In like manner we cannot update God’s profile picture without replacing the one that’s there. This may sting a bit, but these are the beliefs that make God unbelievable:
- God is always a him.
- God is like a cosmic super parent, who monitors behavior by looking down from a distant place.
- God loves us no matter what, unless we don’t believe in Jesus. In which case he will torture us forever in a fiery hell.
- All religions are ultimately invalid, except Christianity.
- God hates science.
- God cannot accept homosexuality, but now He’s good with tattoos.
- God wrote everything down in a book and if you don’t know the book you can’t know God.
- If you pick God’s team, then He will pick you instead of others.
- In the future God will destroy everyone not on his team.
I know I’m picking off the scab here, but hang with me.
God’s profile picture is regressive, tribal, threatening and his love is conditional. Is it any wonder that outsiders with questions encounter this and say: “I’m out.”
But doesn’t the bible describe God in this way? Yes it does. But is scripture depicting God, or is scripture depicting the way an ancient culture depicted God? Literal translations make people weird. Better interpreters know how to contextualize scripture’s essence into a modern framework, yet most churches are a mix of literal and figurative translations. This is another way of saying that nobody believes everything in the bible.
If we remove the institutional bias, a new image emerges from the bible, tradition, and experience. We understand why a religion thrives on the feedback loop created by its literal interpretation and cultural distinctions, but modern people don’t require this.
Each of us has a God story. For some it has led to deeper belief and for others to what we thought was unbelief. Religion is losing its ability to lead people because it has traded influence for authority. Being fearful of change it has been stuck in the past and once the consciousness of the culture expands, people can’t go back into a regressive system.
What the world needs now is for ministry experts to emerge who have a deep understanding of tradition but who are not confined by it. People need spiritual leaders who understand all sacred texts and traditions but who don’t invalidate the unique experience of the individual. That way guidance can be provided which will empower the seeker to grow on their own path rather than press them into an historic mold.
The goal is no longer conversion, but completion (Phil 1:6).
Most people I know are curious as well as cautious. We want to learn more about God and truth, but we don’t want to get sucked into something. We want spirituality without a label. We are all in flux, we just need to know how our diversity resolves itself. The goal of spirituality is to start where we are and go deeper. No more. No less.
Religion may be on the decline, but true spirituality is on the rise as people wake up to what’s inside. The matters of faith are between oneself and God (Rom 14:22), and this radically changes the picture of God from the guy up there, to the power within. Turns out this invisible power is anything but invisible, it has manifested in a concrete way as our very life, and no one is exempt.