Despite Spiritual Hunger in US, Pews Still Go Empty
Talk of a "spiritual awakening" is sweeping America. Indeed, book sales on the soul are rising off the charts. Suburban "megachurches" fill with thousands of seekers. Men meet in football stadiums to repent. TV shows touch on angels. Newspapers start religion beats. Polls say 90 percent of Americans believe in God, and 45 percent go to church every Sunday.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
So churches must be brimming with members, right?
Not so. Even at a time of spiritual hungering, America stubbornly continues to experience a decline of churches as keepers of the spiritual flame.
"Interest in spirituality is up," says Kirk Hadaway, chief statistician for the United Church of Christ in Cleveland. "But active participation in a faith community or institution is dropping."
Titles of new scholarly books give a taste of the story: "The Empty Church," "Reclaiming the Church," "The Crisis in the Church: Spiritual Malaise, Fiscal Woes." In fact, the number of people who participate in churches, keeping them alive through daily or weekly attendance, appears to be down - though a majority of Americans claim a religion either by birth or by being listed on a membership roster.
The longstanding decline in church participation may have an unforeseen cost. Many faithful warn that the idea of church as a vestibule for spiritual growth is slowly being erased from the collective memory. Churches and houses of worship have long emphasized commitment and discipline, values that may seem out of step with the commercialism and instant gratification of today's society.
"Religiously speaking, our society today is good at evangelism but bad at discipleship," says the Rev. Mike Regele, a Presbyterian minister and director of Percept Inc., a church consultancy in Costa Mesa, Calif. "A deeper sense of purpose and meaning comes out of a community where people are faithful over a period of time. That's missing."
"The idea of a firm commitment to church as a precondition to Christianity is no longer a lesson that is taught. Yet it is indispensable to the survival of faith," argues University of Wisconsin scholar Thomas Reeves.
Currently, new independent churches (those with no denominational affiliation) are the fastest growing sector. This includes evangelical megachurches, which attract as many as 15,000 members, many of them younger people who like a contemporary worship style that features popular music. Non-mainstream faiths like Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, are also growing.
Yet churches are still marginalized in US society, compared with earlier eras. This can be attributed partly to a loss of church members through attrition or disinterest. It can also be partly attributed to larger cultural forces - from secular sensibilities to on-the-rise materialism - that are hostile to spiritual faith.
Dr. Regele estimates it will take 500 new megachurches of some 12,000 members each year just to "make up the annual loss of faith involvement we are seeing."
"The evidence is that a lot of people who drop out of church are not going some place else," says Lauren Mead of the Alban Institute, a church consulting group in Maryland. "There's a myth that all our kids are heading down the street to the megachurches. I don't see it."