Signs of 'religious renewal' in US as churchgoing steadies

Religious values, prayer, and sustained interest in the Bible are an integral part of the lives of Americans today. And despite a downturn in church membership in recent decades, there are some hints of a ''religious renewal'' in the United States before the end of the 20th century.

These assessments come from new surveys by the Gallup Organization; from an interfaith study on prayer reported in the January 1983 issue of US Catholic and analyzed by a Protestant theologian, the Rev. Martin E. Marty; and from reports issued by the American Bible Society.

The Gallup study, reported in partnership with the Princeton Religious Research Center (PRRC), indicates that ''many Americans have the conviction that God has dramatically entered their lives. . . . As many as 7 in 10 have felt at some point as though they were close to 'a powerful spiritual life force that seemed to lift them out of themselves. . . .' ''

George Gallup Jr., president of the Gallup Organization and executive director of the PRRC, focuses on some encouraging signs for religious involvement or participation among Americans in the 1980s. Among them: Church membership is standing firm after a slippage in the 1960s and 1970s; church attendance remains steady after a similar downturn; and those who have strong religious beliefs and insist that these convictions are central to their lives are holding to that line.

However, this report shows that only a minority of Americans aver that religion is the ''most important'' influence in their lives (1 in 4); and only 1 in 8 says ''he or she would sacrifice everything for their religious beliefs, or God.''

Further, Dr. Gallup points out that those people who are ''highly spiritually committed'' tend to be satisfied with their lot, place great importance on family life, show concern about the betterment of society, and are more tolerant of different races and religions than those less spiritually committed.

The survey, which assesses the views of members of 10 Christian denominations , shows strong preference for praying in private, great reliance on ''thanking God,'' and strong faith (between 94 and 100 percent) that God answers prayers.

''Prayer is God's wonderful way of breaking open organizationalism, undercutting institutionalism, and subverting formalism,'' says the Rev. Mr. Marty. ''Those 'isms' stand between believers and their God. Prayer leaps the gap, and is not easily controlled or suppressed,'' the theologian explains.

The American Bible Society reports that demand for the Scriptures at Christmas has reached an all-time high this year. The ABS was geared up for 40 million orders - 4 million over last year's peak. But the call for Bibles of various kinds now has exceeded 45 million and is expected to hit the 50 million mark. Alice Ball, general secretary to the society, attributes this volume partly to an increase in ''Scripture evangelism'' but also to ''a new turning to the Word for comfort in these hard times.''

Dr. Gallup's findings affirm a growing interest in the Bible and scriptural study. ''Evidence of the new spiritual quest in America today is seen, for example, in the dramatic upturn over the last four years in the proportion of adults of all faiths and in all walks of life who are earnestly becoming involved in religious education programs,'' the PRRC study points out.

''Bible study is taking hold among teen-agers across the nation in a remarkable way. An ever-increasing number of Americans are involved in programs of evangelization. Half of all teen-agers indicate an interest in going on religious retreats,'' it adds.

A related assessment shows that 44 percent of older teens (16 to 18 years old) say they have had a ''crisis of faith'' - serious doubts about their religious beliefs. But this finding, reported in the monthly religious newsletter Emerging Trends, also stresses that this so-called crisis of faith does not seem to alienate youth from organized religion. And many teen-agers insist that religion is ''very important'' in their lives.

Despite evidence of religious renewal, Gallup points out that there are some worrisome trends that present a serious challenge to the religious community. Among them: lack of knowledge of the Ten Commandments, absence of spiritual discipline, anti -- intellectual strains in religious life, and a growing belief in astrology.

''These four trends . . . clearly indicate that Americans are highly vulnerable in religious life,'' he says. ''It would appear that we are easy prey for false prophets, and no false prophet is so readily available as that of an easy faith - a faith that makes few demands and falls away when severely challenged.''

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