Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pole Results that Lie

I shared an article a while back with my social media network about American Christians and poling statistics.  The essential thrust of the article was that American's over state how often they attend church.  In her latest book "Christianity After Religion" Diana Butler Bass offers an entire chapter to the topic.  She states that the three questions that shape religion are: What do I believe?  How should I act? Who am I?  Surveys and polls are always trying to evaluate one of these three things.   For today I want to discuss the "How should I act" idea.  Pew research tells us that 71% of Americans claim Christianity as their religion of choice.  Beyond that since 1960 surveys have remained steady at claiming approximately 40-45% of Americans say they attend church, synagogue, or mosque in the previous seven days.  This consistent polling data is often used to demonstrate how religious America is compared to say Europe.  It also gives hope to those who say that despite the massive amount of social and economic change America has experienced in the past fifty years church attendance has remained the same.

However, any pastor, religious leader, or casual Sunday commuter can tell you this just isn't the reality.  One only needs look into our sanctuary's or empty roads and quiet neighborhoods on a Sunday morning to see that 45% of us are not out and about attending services.  Philip Brenner from University of Michigan has found that Americans over report their church attendance by up to 18 points.  So basically we do not attend church, but then we feel the need to lie about not going to church.  This puts actual church attendance to around 24%.   Other statisticians would say that the range is actually as low as 14-22% of actual attendees in worship.  This is still relatively high compared to other western countries, but it still parallels the decline experienced by Canada and Europe over the past forty years.

My question is why?  Why do people who do not attend worship regularly feel the need to say they do?  I think it has something to do with social norms.  American religion in general has always been a big part of how we identify ourselves.  I remember learning in elementary school that the first settlers of the colonies were there for religious freedom. Is that the reason, its just because we are rooted in religious norms?  During the cold war days one of the ways Americans differentiated themselves from the "godless communists" was by pointing toward their religiosity.  I know from stories from retired clergy that in order to be on many city council boards or public offices one could prove their good character by being on the deacon board of their church and without it couldn't get onto the public scene.  So many church boards were filled with people less concerned with the church and more concerned with public image.

Broken down our surveys tell us:

  1. 71% of Americans claim Christianity as their religion
  2. 41% claim to attend services regularly
  3. but only around 14-24% actually do
Basically there is about a 45 point gap of people who claim Christianity and those who are actually part of some sort of weekly faith community participation.  

I throw this out there as a conversation starter.  Use the comment section to dialogue.  
What does this say about American religion?
Do you experience this in your church?
What are the people in the gap between actual attendance and reported attendance about?  Why do they claim participation when they don't?
What about the 30 point gap between those who claim Christianity but also say they don't attend.  Who are they and why don't they attend?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Progressive Theology

There are all sorts of branches of Christian theology that is receiving attention these days.  If you go to popular theology blog sites like Patheos, Redletter Christians, Christian Century, Associated Baptist Press, Ministry Matters, Reclaiming the Mission, Relevant Magazine and Home-brewed Christianity you will find "channels" or "themes" that promote certain blog authors or topics.  One of the common titles given is Progressive Christianity or Progressive Theology.  Some authors who are cast into this category include Tony Jones, Christian Piatt, Brian McLaren, David Fitch, Nadia Bolz-Webber, Diana Butler Bass, and Fred Clark.  

But what does this mean? Is it scary? Edgy? Orthodox? Meaningful?  Faithful?  I have often found these authors compelling and insightful. Read many of their blogs and books. Certainly I don't agree with everything (perhaps a sign of having progressive tendencies?) but they ask great questions.  So what does it mean to be a Progressive as opposed to Evangelical, Missional, or Reformed? I came across an answer from a Methodist church in the Midwest.  In their promotion materials about who they are, they claim progressive theology as one of their unique identifiers.  Below is a direct quote from their materials (and yes their material was all in lower case).

8 Points of Progressive Theology: by calling ourselves progressive we mean we are Christians who...
  • find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in dogmatic certainty--more value in questioning than absolutes
  • form ourselves into communities dedicated to equipping another for the work we feel called to do; striving for justice among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all God's creation, and bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of brothers and sisters
  • invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable
  • recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God's realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us.
  • have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus.
  • understand the sharing of bread and wine in the name of Jesus's name to be a representation of an ancient version of God's feast for all peoples
  • know that the way we behave toward one another is the fullest expression of what we believe
  • recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege 
I don't know if all Progressive theology fits into these 8 statements.  I am not sure if the authors above would all agree with all of these points. I am not sure if they would all even consider themselves all that progressive as much as they would consider themselves as emphasizing the basics of Christianity.  However it was helpful to see someone lay claim to the title and define it. 

Personally, I can get down with seven of the eight without much effort and even place all of my hope in Christ in a few of them.   However, I am not as comfortable with those "who have other names for the way to God's realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us."  Perhaps I am reading it wrong.  I believe in ecumenism so having slightly different theology or worship practices is not offensive to me. I also believe that healthy conversation between faiths like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism  and others allows us to learn more about those who are unlike us.  But I also believe that Christ is God made flesh who has been resurrected and is the author and perfector of my faith who is the way, truth, and life.  

So there you have it a definition of progressive theology from a midwest church.  Thoughts?