New Thirst for Spirituality Being Felt Worldwide
Africa, Asia, Mideast, Latin America, and U.S. South see rapid religious growth.
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Catholicism is growing by population growth, but not in attendance. Mormonism has become one of the world's fastest growing faiths and has half its membership outside the US.Skip to next paragraph
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At the same time, evangelical Protestantism has emerged as a major force in American life. Evangelical churches (including such disparate groups as Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, black churches, and Mennonites) now account for more than 40 percent of Americans.
The movement represents a "whole new phenomenon in American religion," says Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, Calif. Over recent decades, many transdenominational entities [like today's Campus Crusade for Christ and Promisekeepers] "have formed new patterns of communication and religious identity."
Meanwhile, many Americans, particularly among younger generations suspicious of institutional authority, are engaged in what sociologist Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University calls "spirituality of seeking" in his book "After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s." They explore many avenues and pick and choose among traditions to create a personal faith. From Generation X downward, young people often find their religious communities in cyberspace.
While such seeking can represent a deep commitment to spirituality, some worry about a superficiality to American religious faith. They question how far one can go without being grounded in a major faith, and call on churches to be more responsive.
"My disappointment is that the churches aren't nearly as creative in responding to these needs and feelings as they might be," Cox says. Students 25 years ago tended to be condescending toward religion; today "there is a seeking and a hunger, and people are not reluctant to express it. It takes a long time for churches to reach out and make the kind of changes in themselves they have to make to meet people half way."
Yet there are also signs of a growing commitment in many directions. More people are studying sacred texts, taking courses at seminaries, creating prayer and Bible groups, and filling the growing number of healing services being held by many denominations. "The idea that healing and religion belong together has come back with a strong emphasis in this age ... among many churches and many movements," says Cox.
"The role of healing is huge," says Marty. "The Christian Science Church had this package 100 years ago. It pioneered ... but today it's all over the place. Lifelong nurture of healing ways is likely to remain a therapeutic revolution which includes body as well as spirit."
And the transforming power of religious faith is gaining recognition in many avenues of life:
* Resources are being directed to faith-based institutions because they have proven more effective than others in freeing people from drug and alcohol addiction and other social ills.
Medical research has demonstrated that those who are religiously active tend to be healthier, have a greater sense of well-being, and live longer.
* Religious leaders are being called on to advise international institutions on economic development, participate in developing environmental policies, and consult with scientists on questions of ultimate reality.
As the millennium nears, issues of environmental degradation, materialistic culture, moral decay, global financial disarray, and a growing imbalance in wealth trouble many peoples. They are turning to religion for answers, and in parts of the world, Marty says, the effort to educate and shape cultures religiously is intense.
Whether the future holds "a new age of the Spirit" as some foresee, or brings clashes between faiths such as those seen in the past depends on the choices individuals make in their spiritual search and on the degree to which efforts are made to understand one another.