A national study shows that most religious institutions ignore their members' faith crises - especially those who come with midlife re-examination of values.
The study, combining poll data from the Gallup organization and in-depth interviews of more than 1,000 people nationwide, concluded that religious institutions often fail people at the most critical times."Many people do not seem to be finding support for their faith or help during life crises from their religious organizations," the Gallup report said.
According to the study, adults are more likely to read the Bible alone or share their problems with a close friend or family member before seeking help at their religious institutions. Many people don't seek out churches because they believe they are not places where doubts about faith can be entertained, the report said.
"There's an unstated norm in a lot of church communities that you don't talk about faith, like politics and sex," said Connie Leean. She is program director for Christian education for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in Chicago and one of the authors of the study.
"It's a fearful thing to do because many people have the notion that different experiences of faith may not fit easily into a dogma or confessions of the church."
The study is being used by several church organizations to help adults in midlife crises express their faith crises. Leean said the ELCA is incorporating some of the findings in its adult curriculum.
Most respondents in the Gallup study (82 percent) said their faith was strengthened by going through a life crisis.
It is not an easy situation for many religious institutions.
"There is that idea that if you embrace your faith you won't have life problems. Then when you have trouble, your Christian self-esteem becomes low because you feel you're not meeting the standards. The gospel can be very self-esteeming when you realize that Christ died for your sins. It's unconditional love," said the Rev. Rick Drenk, pastor of the Wayzata Evangelical Free Church in suburban Minneapolis.
Drenk recently attended a seminar on adult faith development put on by the Rev. Kenneth Stokes of Minneapolis, who directed the six-year study called Faith Development in the Adult Life Cycle. The study was sponsored by 23 religious organizations and has received support from a range of institutions including Unitarians, Jews, Catholics and Protestants. It uses psychosocial research, faith development stages and temperament measures combined with the poll about faith to gain insights into how life changes affect faith.
There are some controversial aspects to the approach, Stokes admits, because it is similar to a kind of theological study called process theology. Many theologians reject the notion that faith changes because it is a gift from God. However, some theologians say faith is the personal expression of one's relationship with God and therefore changes as a person changes.
"People assume faith is something you get as children. They don't realize how much it can change in 20 years," Stokes said. "Most people are not aware of the potential for growth, change, development and the enrichment of their faith."
Said Gene Scapanski, who worked on the faith study, "Adult faith can be disturbing. Many people don't want to ask questions. It challenges your values. Small groups are doing that and it's really exciting."
Scapanski is dean of graduate programs and pastoral studies and continuing education for the St. Paul Seminary. A Roman Catholic, Scapanski said he has seen an increase in adult studies of this kind in his church, some of them "very creative."