Back to church: In search of the '98 percent'

By Max Perry Mueller

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

These guides highlighted the positions of regional and national candidates for elected office on issues like abortion, prayer in schools, and no-fault divorce. And some pastors — even from the pulpit — instructed their members that voting for the Christian Coalition's handpicked candidates was a religious obligation.

This was the era when today's young adults came of age. And because, as Campbell says, many of them did not share the conservative politics that dominated a large contingent of Christian communities, some of these young Americans became "increasingly likely to say that (they) do not have a religion."

Burklo believes that many conservative churches' position on homosexuality was a particularly important catalyst to young Americans disillusionment with organized religion. According to Burklo such positions have "done more than anything else to turn young people away from those churches."

Costs to Society

Campbell was surprised by the results of his surveys, which found that many Americans were willing to abandon churches and their theological beliefs because of politics.

"It seemed amazing," Campbell said, "that someone would hazard the fate of their eternal soul on the basis of whether they like George W. Bush (or now, perhaps, Mitt Romney)."

And Campbell believes there are negative consequences associated with the decline in religious affiliation, costs that appear well before Americans might reach the afterlife. Obviously, a growth in the number of 'nones' means more empty churches. But beyond this, there are other costs to American society, and to individual lives.

Greater secularization, Campbell believes, "runs the risk of harming America's civil society," because most of the nation's volunteering and philanthropic work is funded, organized, and staffed by religious organizations.

For his part, Rolko describes church communities as the "'glue keeping neighborhoods together." He believes that childcare centers, schools and yoga studios can't replace the "social capital" of churches.

In fact, recent studies have shown that lower levels of religious affiliation lead to lower levels of community engagement and community service. Americans who don't go to church (or participate in other social communities) volunteer much less and give less to charities, and this includes non-religious organizations. There is even a correlation between lower church attendance and decreasing voting rates.

Getting Americans back

Many American churches recognize that declining religious affiliation is a real problem. Empty pews mean churches have to close their doors. And closed churches lead to a more disengaged, even apathetic, American citizenry.

Yet some churches, including a growing group that some scholars call "emerging churches," see both a need and an opportunity to create a church that is not opposed to secular society but can exist within it. In this sense, Pastor Dave believes that part of the solution to bringing people back to religion is not to try to change Americans to fit the norms of the church. Instead the idea is to change the church to fit the norms of Americans.

On the same mid-September day some 10,000 churches across the country participated in "National Back to Church Sunday," the Vineyard was holding its own fall "Kick-Off Sunday." The service was dedicated to welcoming new and returning attendees and members, especially the area's many university students who might have been away for the summer. But this Sunday was also pretty typical for the Vineyard, where the service is designed to lower every possible barrier to attendance, to make it as easy as possible for the 98 percent of the unchurched in Cambridge to feel welcome in church.

There is certainly no dress code. Most the five hundred congregants, guests and visitors — many wearing jeans, T-shirts, even running clothes and surgery scrubs — looked like they could have wandered in from Sunday brunch or a Sunday morning run. And though many share high levels of education and middle class incomes, the Vineyard's congregants are diverse.

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