Diana Butler-Bass, has a PhD from Duke University and writes prolifically on the history of religion and the contemporary church in North America.
Diana Butler-Bass has announced “The End of Church.”
Bass points out that the Roman Catholic church which is the largest Christian denomination in the world, has experienced precipitous decline in attendance “in recent decades.” She also points out that , as is well known, mainline Protestant churches have been in free fall for at least the past 15 years.
Perhaps, a little more surprising Butler-Bass says,
conservative Protestant denominations have witnessed significant erosion in membership, money and participation — with some of the greatest drops in groups like the Southern Baptist Convention that once seemed impervious to decline. In a typical week, less than a quarter of Americans attend a religious service, down from the half of the population who were regular churchgoers a generation ago.
In response Butler-Bass suggests
the macro-structures of American faith — denominations … are still trying to fix institutional problems and flex political muscle instead of tending to the spiritual longings of regular Americans.
Those who function in the spiritual marketplace would do well to pay attention to these “spiritual longings of regular Americans,” because Butler-Bass says,
Americans are searching for churches — and temples, synagogues, and mosques — that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world. Americans are not rejecting faith — they are, however, rejecting self-serving religious institutions.
This seems to indicate, at least in the mind of Diana Butler-Bass, that there is hope for religious institutions that are willing to explore different ways of being church.
The church is not alone in needing to find new ways of doing institutional life. When I was a child, it was not uncommon for Dr. Beevor-Potts (that really was his name) to drop by our house with his little black doctor’s bag, if anyone in the family was feeling sick. Today, many people do not even have a personal family doctor who is likely to remember their name.
Life is changing. The way people express religious faith is changing. It is hard to know precisely what is the way forward. There do not seem to be any good road maps to guide us through this uneasy terrain. It is hard to say what the church should look like that is going to have the capacity to cater to the contemporary sensibility.
Perhaps it is easier to say what we know people do not want in their religious institutions today.
People do not want to be treated as if they were children. They do not want rigid hierarchical leadership in which “Daddy knows best.” People resist being told what to think. They do not want to be made to feel that there is an unquestionable authority figure standing over them who must be obeyed and with whom they must agree at all times. The history of the church is littered with too many tales of outrageous abuse to allow any church official to think they can operate in a realm where they are above being questioned.
Spiritual seekers today do not want to be subjected to affectation or pretence. They do not want to be manipulated or jerked around by an inauthentic remote figure-head. They do not want rigidity, unquestionable dogma, or inflexible parameters that dictate every aspect of human behaviour. Our culture values authenticity. We want to believe that our leaders are genuine human beings willing to acknowledge their limitations and shortcomings.
We in the church must understand that we are operating in an incredibly complex culture. People are more aware than they have ever been of the extraordinary complications that affect almost every human endeavour today. Life is confusing. Spiritual seekers do not want a church that denies or ignores the complexities of being human.
To be honest, I suppose, the church I have suggested people do not want is the one I do not want. It seems there are still many people who want a church with simple, straightforward answers to all of life’s questions. There seem to be people who still seek dogmatic clarity, ethical rigidity, and tightly defined boundaries.
I find this hard to comprehend.