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

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 4:02 a.m. MDT

The Vineyard congregation worships in a refurbished French Catholic church. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship ) The Vineyard congregation worships in a refurbished French Catholic church. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship )

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Pastor Dave Schmelzer talks a lot about reaching the "98 percent."

"I'm not talking about the '99 percent' " says Schemelzer, a tall 50-year-old minister whose laidback charisma reflects his California upbringing. In other words, Pastor Dave, as he is known to his congregants at the Greater Boston Vineyard Church, is not referring to the now ubiquitous term associated with the Occupy movement, and the economic class divisions that have become so contentious in American politics.

So who — or what — is the "98 percent"?

According to Pastor Dave, who earned his master's of divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., it is widely believed that in the 1990s "only 2 percent of residents of Cambridge went to church on a given weekend." That means 98 percent of "Cantabrigians" were un-churched, a number that is even less than the rate of religious participation in Western Europe, "which is considered the international seat of atheism," says Pastor Dave.

Surveys about American religious attitudes show the fastest-growing group of Americans is actually the Surveys about American religious attitudes show the fastest-growing group of Americans is actually the "nones," Americans under 30 who report that they have no religion. Surveys about American religious attitudes show the fastest-growing group of Americans is actually the "nones," Americans under 30 who report that they have no religion. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship)

These extremely low rates of religious participation might be unique to Cambridge. But they also reflect an accelerating trend in many parts of America during the past two decades.

Surveys about American attitudes toward religion have shown that the fastest-growing group of religious Americans is actually the religious "nones," the roughly one-third of all Americans under 30 who report that they have no religion. To be sure, the greatest concentration of the non-religiously affiliated is among young people. But, says University of Notre Dame professor David Campbell, who with Harvard's Robert Putnam, have collected some of the best data on American attitudes toward religion, "we see growth in the 'nones' across the whole population."

These numbers don't necessarily reflect a growth in atheism among Americans. Many of the same people who claim no religious identity, explains Jim Burklo, associate dean of religious life at the University of Southern California "(have an) interest in religion and spirituality." While fewer of his USC students "profess any particular religious affiliation," says Burklo, "hunger is strong for … a connection with ultimate reality, for finding a way of life that has integrity in all aspects."

Pastor Dave Schmelzer dresses casually to speak to his Vineyard congregation. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship) Pastor Dave Schmelzer dresses casually to speak to his Vineyard congregation. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship)

So if people aren't abandoning religion because of lack of belief, what is causing the precipitous decline in religious affiliation in America? The answer might be less about faith, and more about politics. Some Americans have the impression that joining a church requires not only the acceptance of a certain set of religious beliefs, but political ones, too. And for much of recent American history, they've been right.

Politics from the pulpit

Notre Dame's David Campbell claims that "the primary reason for the sudden growth in the 'nones' is a backlash to the mingling of religion and right-wing politics."

Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, religion, especially conservative Christianity, increasingly became synonymous with conservative social issues, like abortion and gay marriage, and also economic policy. Organizations like Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and televangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition turned churches into political recruiting grounds. Church members became the foot soldiers in efforts to, as Robertson often said, "defend America's Godly heritage" from perceived assaults from the forces of liberalism and secularism.

Communion is prepared for Vineyard service. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship) Communion is prepared for Vineyard service. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship)

On a pro-life, anti-pornography and balanced budget platform, Robertson even ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1988. Robertson's second-place finish in Iowa — ahead of George H. W. Bush — surprised the Republican Party, and proved to GOP elites that the conservative social issues Robertson championed appealed to many voters in the party's base.

During the 1990s, the Christian Coalition became famous for distributing millions of "voter guides" to churches, which the organization believed would be sympathetic to their socially conservative political message.

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.

Communion is prepared for Vineyard service. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship) Communion is prepared for Vineyard service. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship)

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.

The Vineyard is housed in a refurbished French Catholic church. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship) The Vineyard is housed in a refurbished French Catholic church. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship)

"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.

Remodeled  interior of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship features big screen video monitors and stained glass windows with scriptures in French. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship) Remodeled interior of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship features big screen video monitors and stained glass windows with scriptures in French. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship)

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.

Pastor Dave Schmelzer says his focus at Vineyard Christian Fellowship is reaching Pastor Dave Schmelzer says his focus at Vineyard Christian Fellowship is reaching "the 98 percent." (Vineyard Christian Fellowship)

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.

Pastor Dave dresses casually to speak to his Vineyard congregation. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship) Pastor Dave dresses casually to speak to his Vineyard congregation. (Vineyard Christian Fellowship)

A middle-age African-American woman and young Caucasian man cooed over a Hispanic family's newborn son as they all walked up the steps into the church.

Before the service, a rock band played Christian worship songs while much of the crowd grabbed a bagel and coffee in the church's café, before sitting in the church's plush red seats. The pews were removed when the Vineyard bought the building from the Catholic Church, which had constructed it a century before to house the French Canadian Catholics in the area. Though the building has been completely renovated — with sophisticated acoustic panels hanging from the vaulted sealing and flatscreen TVs mounted throughout the sanctuary — the Vineyard left in place the ornate stained-glass windows with biblical verses in French.

The religious message at the Vineyard is also meant to dispel the notion that church must be stodgy, pious and theologically abrasive. Pastor Dave, dressed in khaki slacks and a casual button down shirt, preached a sermon meant to inspire better relationships with others and with Jesus Christ — and not to fear him.

The come-as-you-are dress code, café offerings and non-confrontational sermon — all of these efforts are geared to lowering the bariers the 98 percent might feel about joining a church. Pastor Dave explained that these aspects of his church, which some might consider trappings of "secular" society, stem from how he thinks about the best way to create vibrant Christian community in the 21st century.

Too often one of the main boundaries has been politics, Dave says. Because he holds this view, Dave is a prime example of what Notre Dame's Campbell describes as a growing number of American "clergy (who) have recognized that too much Caesar keeps people away from God, or at least from church."

As Dave puts it, many churches have gotten the relationship between religion and politics backwards. "It's an error, to my mind, to make second order things, like politics, first order things. Christ, and our relationship with him is first order. In comparison, everything else, how you vote, for example, is a secondary concern."

A revival in "secular" Cambridge?

It's hard to say if the Vineyard alone has moved the dial much on the 98 percent. Still Pastor Dave and his ministry staff have created a vibrant, diverse community of some 800 regular attendees.

Many are like Victoria Marriman, who because of her "fire and brimstone … traditional Methodist" upbringing became an "avowed atheist" during her college years at Harvard. But at the Vineyard, she found a home among people with whom she "can question, debate and even doubt." And for Marriman, being a member of the Vineyard doesn't just mean showing up on Sunday.

"People are amazing here," she said. "They rally around someone in the church that they might not even know who just got kicked out of her apartment. Or go shovel the side walk for an old lady."

For Cambridge-era residents like Marriman, Pastor Dave's message of a church that helps people achieve "impossibly great lives" and helps "make (them) resilient to life's trauma" as the church website states, even in the one of the epicenters of America's "secular culture," clearly resonates. Pastor Dave has brought a lot of people from the 98 percent into his church, people like Marriman, who says, "I probably would not have a church otherwise."

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