Old Time Religion...Is It Good Enough for You?

November 20, 2002
The religious landscape of 21st century America is strewn with boulders and deep crevices that even the most devout may have trouble traversing. The Roman Catholic Church has been rocked by scandals in the past year. Americans pledge allegiance to the flag but may stumble over the words "under God" because of judicial rulings (see Insights on page 47). Since Sept. 11, 2001, many who never gave a second thought to the diversity of religious practices in their neighborhoods and businesses now do, and they aren't sure what those thoughts should be.

Gallup Polls

How are we to make sense of all this? One way is by polling the American people, which for the past six decades has been the purview of the Gallup Organization in Princeton, N.J. Americans have turned to Gallup to learn what we collectively think about everything from pets to violence in the media to religious beliefs.
D. Michael Lindsay, BA '94, who is completing his doctorate at Princeton, has worked with George Gallup Jr. for the past five years. They have collaborated on two books, Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U.S. Beliefs (1999) and The Gallup Guide: Reality Check for 21st Century Churches (2002). Although they find it a challenging period in our nation's religious experience, they also believe it is a time of extraordinary opportunity.
"The relationship between belonging and believing is becoming a new focus for churches," Lindsay says. "We find that belonging to a church often leads to believing, and not the reverse, which is often surprising."
In The Gallup Guide, Lindsay writes: "Surveys record an unprecedented desire for religious and spiritual growth among people of all walks of life and in every region of the nation. It is for churches to seize the moment and to direct this often vague and free-floating spirituality into a solid and lived-out faith."
What defines a lived-out faith is the question of the day, and what pollsters -- both the Gallup Organization and the Regional Church Membership Survey (RCMS) -- are finding is that it's not necessarily the faith of our fathers. Generations X and Y really don't care much about that, says Dr. Levi Price, professor of pastoral ministry and director of the pastoral ministry program at George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Dr. Price, BA '64, is a former Baylor regent who came to Truett last fall after 17 years as senior pastor of First Baptist, El Paso, an inner-city church that had been in decline for 40 years before he assumed its pastorate.
"The churches that are growing today, which is a very small percentage, are missional churches," he says. "They are not institutionally oriented, they are not turned inward. Their focus is outward, on confronting mankind in the name of Christ. These are the ones that Generations X and Y are drawn to; they couldn't care less about the institution."

Church growth statistics

These are hard words for the keepers of the institution to hear, no doubt, but not altogether new information. Statistics on church growth for mainline Protestant churches tell the story (see sidebar). Dr. Chris Bader, Baylor assistant professor of sociology and anthropology and a sociologist of religion, studies the growth and decline of church membership. He spent last summer developing software to upload the RCMS data onto the Web site of the American Religion Data Archive, a project funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc. The survey is conducted decennially by Glenmary Institute and the Church of the Nazarene. Although it is voluntary, Dr. Bader says it is an accurate representation of the majority of mainline Protestant and evangelical churches in the nation, but not of Eastern religions such as Islam and Buddhism. Also not represented are several predominantly black denominations such as the National Baptist Convention, which did not participate.
"From 1990 to 2000, the groups that are growing in membership are the ones that require more of their members -- to attend more often, to do more volunteering, to lead Bible studies, to speak in front of the group. Requirement is the key," Dr. Bader says.
What Americans are seeking in their religious experience, though, is a mixed bag, and it is a trend that concerns George Gallup Jr., whose father founded the Gallup Organization (see "Polling a Nation" on page 23). "Americans can't defend their beliefs. They are susceptible to the New Age movement, they go off in all directions but they don't know what they believe and why, and they don't have a basis to judge other influences," he says. In his book, he writes: "Americans are practicing a 'do-it-yourself, whatever works' kind of religion, picking and choosing among beliefs and practices of various faith traditions."

'Spiritual salad bars'

This melting pot of religions is analogous to the philosophy upon which America was founded -- a nation guaranteeing freedom of religion to all peoples. Until recently, though, these myriad religions maintained their separateness, Lindsay says. "Mixing and matching of faiths is a very recent phenomenon," he says, calling the practice a "spiritual salad bar." He attributes this to everything from the Internet to Oprah Winfrey. "There's a guide out there for Christian yoga. You wouldn't have seen that 40 years ago," he says.
Such an approach to faith can be comforting but not challenging, Gallup says: "It's a dangerous situation because people become prey to all sorts of false doctrines. They consider things Christian that aren't Christian. It's extremely important right now that people really examine the traditions of their own faith."

Zeroing in on needs

Part of the challenge for today's church is to zero in on the needs of a new generation of believers. The Gallup Guide identifies three such needs: spiritual moorings -- a re-education of faith traditions and Scripture; more meaningful relationships; and outreach to marginalized people.
According to Dr. Price, the missional churches growing today focus on such needs and are doing everything they can to meet them. "The people who go to these churches go because they're looking for leaders who have a vision. They don't care whether it's a Baptist or Catholic or Methodist church; they care about reaching people for the kingdom of Christ," he says.
A case in point is Antioch Community Church of Waco, a 31/2-year-old small-group church planted by Highland Baptist of Waco. Senior Pastor Jimmy Seibert, BBA '86, says Antioch engages members in daily Bible study and prayer, carried out individually and in the church's 90-plus small groups that meet during the week in homes and on Sunday mornings. The church also offers a one-year discipleship training school that culminates in two months of missionary service abroad. Antioch Ministries International, a forerunner of the church, has planted at least 20 churches since it began 10 years ago and most of those are in unreached areas of the world, Seibert says.
"If I know how to disciple and evangelize in a small group community, then I can reproduce that anywhere in the world," Seibert says. "People are more drawn to relationship than they are to institutions. That's another huge transition. People go to church today because of the opportunity to encounter the Lord, not just because it's the right thing to do."
Antioch, which has more than doubled from 500 to 1,300 members since 1999, has added about 200 members each year. It received international attention in fall 2001 as the church home of Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, two of eight foreign aid workers in Afghanistan who were imprisoned by the Taliban for more than three months. After meeting in various rented venues around Waco in its first year, Antioch now owns and occupies a renovated former grocery store in a racially mixed neighborhood. Thirty-five percent to 40 percent of its membership is college age, but one of its fastest growing groups is age 40 and older.
"Our three values simplified are 'love God, love others, love the lost,'" Seibert says. "What makes us unique is that we really encourage everyone to embrace these core values and to do them. We have high expectations, and we reinforce them over and over again."

Small groups

Gallup and Lindsay agree that the small group approach is critical to church growth. "The idea that you need to have such a seeker-sensitive church that there's no expectation of moving beyond a simple, bystander position is really false," Lindsay says. "The best way to instill commitment among members is by having them responsible to a small group."
In the small group model, true discipling can take place, Gallup says. "You're talking about caring enough about the other person's faith to walk alongside them. That's pretty irresistible for most people, and that's where growth can really take place," he says.
Not everyone, though, can go out and start a new church. Mainline Protestant churches that have persevered faithfully through the decades are facing unprecedented challenges, valiantly seeking ways to reverse steady membership declines.
Gallup says he believes the mainline churches can reverse the current trend through intentionality and religious education. "First of all, they need clarity of position, to be very clear about the Gospel. And then, frankly, they need to put an emphasis on evangelism. Mainline churches often are not clear in their theology and they don't stress evangelism," Gallup says. "The great need in this country is for religious education. People are not rooted in the Bible. Many do not know what they believe or why."

A lifetime work

Dr. Price agrees that a mainline church can find new life in the 21st century. He cautions, however, that it takes a pastor committed to the long haul who, with God's blessing, manages to do it successfully. "Can you take an old, established church that's been in decline for 30 or 40 years and turn it into a missional church?" he asks. "You can do that, and I know you can do that because I did it in El Paso. But it is difficult and it is a lifetime work."
The model Dr. Price used in El Paso is a two-track approach: continue to offer the programs that are important to the longtime members of the church while laying the track to begin a missional church. The latter can include starting small groups and offering weekly prayer breakfasts and Bible studies -- programs geared to take Christ's message of love and grace outside the church walls.
"A lot of church leadership gurus today would say forget them, let them die and move on. That's not acceptable to me," Dr. Price says. "The two-track approach is a much more compassionate way of turning an established, declining church around. It's harder, you've got to have some conflicts and you're probably going to lose some people in order to make the change."
Dr. Price came to Truett Seminary to take over leadership of the pastoral ministry program, which places seminarians in field-work settings for one semester. The seminary's dean, Dr. Paul Powell, asked him to "come and teach seminary students how to be pastors in the real world," Dr. Price says.
That's no small task given the growing reluctance among seminarians to become pastors. The Alban Institute magazine, CONGREGATIONS, explored the topic of a clergy shortage in its March/April 2001 issue. It reported dramatic declines in three mainline denominations in the number of clergy in the 35-year-old and younger category:
• Presbyterian Church (USA) -- from 24 percent in 1975 to 7 percent in 1999;
• Episcopal Church -- from 19 percent in 1974 to 4 percent in 2000; and
• Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod -- from 18 percent in 1980 to 8 percent in 2000.*
At Truett, about 30 percent of the 2002 graduating class indicated they planned to become full-time parish pastors, according to seminary administrators.
"A lot of the seminary students don't want to be pastors because they feel like they're going to have to guard the institution and take care of the people on the inside, when what they want to do is be more authentic in terms of reaching people in the culture with the Gospel of Christ," Dr. Price says.

21st century pastor

Chris Thacker, 25, who completed his MDiv at Truett in December, wasn't sure when he started seminary that he wanted to pastor a church full time. But after completing a pastoral ministry mentorship last summer at Dayspring Baptist in Waco with pastor Burt Burleson, BA '80, the picture became clearer. "The thought came to me, 'If I do anything else, I won't be nearly as happy as if I do this,'" he says.
Nevertheless, it wasn't an easy decision. Thacker knows he's entering a demanding profession at a difficult time in the church's history -- the topic of many a late-night conversation over coffee with his seminary friends.
"One instinct is to turn your back on the traditional church and say, 'I feel called by God to be a minister, and the way I'm going to do that is by going over here and starting my brand new thing,'" he says. "On the other hand, there's the response that says, 'I can't give up on this thing that taught me my faith.'
"Once I came to the point where I was comfortable with both declarations -- that I can't turn my back on the established church, but I can't ignore any longer the voice of a changing culture -- then I became comfortable saying I will be a pastor in the 21st century," Thacker says.

Is God in it?

Thacker's mentorship at Dayspring focused on crafting creative, artistic worship experiences through which people "can meet God," he says. Gallup would agree that an authentic worship experience is essential to today's faithful. "The bottom line is, people must see something happening in the church," Gallup says. "They've got to see lives are changed, they need the supernatural. People have got to be able to tell their stories, otherwise it's just another social service agency. God's not in this picture. The Holy Spirit isn't there."
And, according to Seibert, it doesn't matter to people what kind of church they find that experience in, as long as they find it. "People today who choose to follow the Lord in a committed way don't care what the front door says, as a general rule. If there's biblical Christianity happening in a life-giving way and they can engage it, I don't think they mind if it's mainline or if it's nondenominational or whatever."
An engaged, committed membership is a hallmark of today's growing churches, Dr. Bader says. Membership grows when you weed out the "pew riders" -- those who use the church but do not contribute anything -- and pare it down to passionate parishioners, he says. "What you're left with then is a more passionate core -- the people who want to work for the church -- and people are attracted to passionate groups."
Measurement of church growth or decline provided by research and polls can be misleading if taken out of context, cautions Dr. Bader. "I don't think it's really much different from what Americans have always been looking for," he says of current religious expectations. "People take a snapshot of one year and say, 'Oh my gosh, mainline denominations are dying.'"
The reality of group dynamics, however -- any group, not just churches -- is that the longer a group exists, the more it tends to institutionalize, Dr. Bader says. And when churches do that, their members get dissatisfied and move toward churches that expect more engagement.
"When you get a group that is secularized to the point that they don't really require anything of members, they aren't very spiritual, they talk about God in very distant terms, people start to move away from those churches," Dr. Bader says.

Continual innovation

Being open to change, keeping approaches fresh and being innovative will help the church avoid this stagnation, Seibert says. "You set your structures too tight, you begin to institutionalize quickly and then you begin to hire people rather than develop people. The key is to innovate. Continual innovation keeps you sharp and crisp," he says.
From Dr. Bader's research-focused perspective, it's as common as the changing of seasons. "There are always different churches that are moving toward that far end of being institutionalized, and there are always new up-and-comers appearing that are feistier and really aggressive in trying to get members, and they're pulling people away from those more established churches," he says.
From one perspective, the adage "the more things change, the more they stay the same" may apply to America's religious reality today. It's clear that the sentiment of the old invitational hymn "All for Jesus" has struck a chord with a new generation of young people looking for a religious experience that exacts a price -- a good deal more than just an hour on Sunday morning.
"The reason that some of the churches aren't growing," Seibert says, "is that they're not asking the central question of what's best for the kingdom, what honors and loves Jesus the most. If that's the central question, then we're putting it all on the table and asking how do we need to change."
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