Monday, March 9, 2009

Finding a place in a changing religious landscape

Two studies that have come out in the past few weeks raise some interesting questions for those of us who are part of the United Church of Christ.

The first study -- The 2009 edition of the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches -- reported that the UCC was declining in membership faster than any other Protestant denomination. We were down 6.1 percent between 2006 and 2007, according to the data the UCC gave to the yearbook.

We were not alone in this decline. The two largest Christian denominations in the U.S. also reported declines -- 0.59 for Roman Catholics, 0.24 for Southern Baptists. They had been steadily growing in the past. The fastest growing denominations were the Jehovah's Witness (up 2.12 percent), the Mormons (up 1.63 percent), the Assemblies of God (up 0.96 percent).

The second study looks at the overall shifting of religious identification over a 20-year period. The headline - Christianity is shrinking as a proportion of the U.S. scene and people calling themselves non-religious are increasing. The study is called the American Religious Identification Survey and you can find it by clicking here.

Almost 20 years ago, in 1990, the survey reported, 86 percent of Americans described themselves as Christian. That percentage is now 76 percent. Likewise, in 1990, about 8 percent of Americans declared no religious affiliation. That is now up to 15 percent. And Wisconsin follows a similar pattern -- see this story from the Wisconsin State Journal.

So does this mean we should all crawl into bed and put our heads under the pillows? I don't think so.

These trends are useful to know about and to try to understand. They reflect the changing landscape in which we live. They provide material to think about as we look at we describe ourselves as followers of Jesus. But they really don't have much to do with what I believe as an individual.

My affiliation with Christianity grew out of my family experience as a child -- I was raised Roman Catholic -- but it has been shaped and refined by my experiences as an adult. I have made a conscious decision to be a Christian and I have chosen the UCC as the place that I think best enables me to deepen and live out my Christianity. Others may have chosen other denominational expressions or the non-denominational, evangelical Christianity that is has grown so much in this country over the past few decades.

I think I have something to learn from the evangelicals, from the disaffected, from Muslims and Jews and Wiccans and others. It may seem like it would be more fun to be part of a growing, thriving denomination. Within the UCC as an institution, there are all sorts of struggles about budgets and the staff and directions for the future. Those are institutionally important, but they are not at the core of Jesus' message.

That message is about loving God and loving others as we love ourselves. It's about working in this world to help it be the kind of place God created it to be. At Memorial UCC, that's what we are about. It's a vibrant community that sails against the tide of the trends showing up in these surveys.

That's not something to be smug about. That's all the more reason why need to nurture God's spirit in our midst and let it affect how we have an impact on the people and the world around us.

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