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"I can't understand it," he said. "I firmly believe religion should be important in everyone's life and yet, when I go to church, it leaves me absolutely cold." The conversation took place at dinner with the chief executive officer of one of the Fortune 500 companies.
He continued, "Our church is less than half full for Sunday worship, the liturgy is out of the Middle Ages, the sermons seldom relate to what is going on in my life, and the people look bored and unhappy."
"Well, then, what keeps you going back to church?" I asked.
"Actually, I attend church less often than I did ten years ago," he replied. "But I continue to believe that religion is important. I believe in God. I desperately want my grandchildren to get a good religious training. Yet what goes on at our church on Sunday seems so irrelevant to the rest of my life."
He shook his head. "It's a weird situation. It really is."
My dinner companion is not alone. His "weird situation" is rather common among Americans and is apparently becoming more so.
In fall 1988 the Gallup organization released the results of a ten-year study on churchgoing in America. The Gallup people discovered that from 1978 to 1988 the percentage of unchurched American adults had risen from 41 percent to 44 percent. Based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' population estimate, this drop of 3 percent equates to 7 million more unchurched Americans during that ten-year period.
The most striking discovery in the study wasthat while church membership is steadily shrinking, an increasing number of adults believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. The number of Americans who affirm that conviction rose from 78 percent in 1978 to 84 percent in 1988. Significantly more Americans are expressing religious convictions, while fewer are staying in the churches.
As my friend said, "It's a weird situation."
Evidence in support of Gallup's findings can be found everywhere.
In the 1970s alonethe United Presbyterian Church reported a 19 percent loss of members. In the same period the Disciples of Christ were down 17 percent, the Episcopalians 15 percent, the United Church of Christ 11 percent, and the United Methodist Church had 9 percent fewer members.
On the other hand, the more conservative and fundamentalist churches have been experiencing significant growth. We will look at the reasons for this in later chapters.
Not only is membership declining in the mainline denominations, but church attendance is also. Even the Roman Catholic church, which has been able to increase membership, is struggling with decreased attendance. From 1958 to 1982 the number of Roman Catholics attending weekly mass dropped from 74 percent to 51 percent. In Detroit, for example, the diocese announced in December 1988 that forty-six churches would be closed due to inadequate membership support,
We have every evidence that the situation will get worse. A visitor to a typical congregation on any given Sunday morning will see a disproportionately high percentage of silver-haired worshipers. Although 40 percent of all Americans are between eighteen and thirty-four, 41 percent of all Methodists and 42 percent of all Disciples of Christ are fifty-five or older. The mean age of United Church of Christ members is fifty-five.Furthermore, of those fewer and older Americans who are still attending churches, a disproportionately high percentage are women. My dinner companion was, in fact, rather typical of American males today.
I believe my own experience can shed light on what is going on with respect to religion in America today.
I was baptized in a Lutheran church and was dutifully enrolled by my mother in every program our congregation had to offer the young. Kindergarten, Sunday school, weekday church school, vacation church school, catechetical classes, youth league -- I got the whole truckload. I was also enrolled in the children's choir, much against my will. Not only was I a poor singer, but I detested being dressed up in a white choir robe with a silly black bow tie tucked under my chin. I finally managed to escape the children's choir, only to appear as an acolyte in another white robe with an even larger floppy bow tie. How I hoped that none of my classmates from junior high school would see me in that stupid outfit! But it was repeatedly pointed out to me that I was serving God by doing these things.
I suffered through countless church services in which the music was dreary, the sermons were totally beyond my comprehension, and the people looked like a rather unhappy lot, except for those who were asleep. But not one shred of what I experienced in church had any relationship to the experiences of my life.
My grandparents on both sides of the family were regular churchgoers, but I never saw how it made any difference in their daily lives. Not once did I see any of my parents or grandparents pray outside of a church service. At mealtimes it was always "Billy" who was expected to recite his little prayer. A parent would usually say my bedtime prayer with me when I was very young, but I have no idea if they prayed before their own bedtime. We never discussed religion at our dinner table. It seemed to me that my parents' and grandparents' religious experience was confined to what went on in church on Sunday morning.
When I was old enough to break away from the family, churchgoing was one of the first things I discarded. Religion was for the birds. Church was phony. I completely left the church, and sometimes proudly boasted to my friends that I did not believe in God. In retrospect I think I may have had my fingers crossed on that boast; but I certainly had no use for the church. It related in no way to my daily life.Monday Connection. Copyright � by William E. Diehl. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.