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[Ed. Note: Please also read Are Religions Bad for Animals?]
By Michael Mountain,
Earth in Transition
How are churches trying to adapt to the fact that fewer and fewer
Americans are identified with a particular religion? And what does this have
to do with our relationship to other animals?
According to a report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, one
in five adults – and one in three under 30 – has no religious affiliation.
In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have
increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their
ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics
(nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say
they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).
Americans overall are still more religious than Europeans. More than half
of Americans say religion is very important in their lives, compared to 17
percent in Britain, 13 percent in France, and 21 percent in Germany.
But the trend in the United States is definitely downward, and an article
by Amy O’Leary in the New York Times looks at a number of evangelical
churches and how they’re working to counter this and to keep up with the
The first church O’Leary visits is a big warehouse-like building in the
Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas:
Inside there are the trappings of a revitalization
project, including an art gallery, a yoga studio and a business incubator,
sharing the building with a coffee shop and a performance space. But it is,
in fact, a church.
Life in Deep Ellum is part of a wave of
experimentation around the country by evangelicals to reinvent “church” in
an increasingly secular culture, and it comes as the megachurch boom of
recent decades, with stadium seating for huge crowds, Jumbotrons and smoke
machines, faces strong headwinds.
A national decline in church attendance, the
struggling economy and the challenges of marketing to millennials have all
led to the need for new approaches.
Other churches are holding meetings and services in theaters, schools,
warehouses, etc. And the new style of church has much less to do with big
auditoriums and Crystal Cathedral-style monuments, and much more to do with
converting simple buildings like warehouses into meeting, shopping and
community spaces. The owner of a company that designs audio visual systems
for churches explains that “kids in their late 20s to midteens ... crave
intimacy and authenticity. They want high-quality experiences, but don’t
necessarily want them in huge voluminous buildings.”
In all these cases, while the medium is changing, the message,
classically evangelical like other orthodoxies, remains the same.
But in a world that’s falling apart around us, on a planet that will in
some ways be unrecognizable 100 years from now, the message of today’s
religions is not exactly preparing us for what is to come. And this is
surely a large part of why more and more people are less and less enchanted
with what these religions offer.
On the website of Life in Deep Ellum, for example, we learn that:
Life in Deep Ellum is a cultural center built for the
artistic, social, economic, and spiritual benefit of Deep Ellum and urban
Dallas. ... It strives to promote life and growth in our city through
creative initiatives and strategic partnerships.
Life in Deep Ellum is about a way of life,
cultivating purpose, and guiding people into relationship with God.
What’s missing from this? Answer: Anything to do with how we humans
relate to the rest of life on the planet that we’re systematically
Director of the Cultural Center Tanner Hockensmith says that "September
through December [I think] only of hunting.”
Reporter Amy O’Leary writes about how these new churches and ministries
are trying all kinds of new means to attract new members. For example:
One Sunday before Easter, the pastor at the Relevant
Church in Tampa, Fla., wearing a rabbit suit, whisked the unsuspecting
congregation away on chartered buses to a nearby park to build enthusiasm
for the coming service. “For us, it’s all about being interactive,” said
Paul Wirth, Relevant’s founder and lead pastor.
But the problem with religion as we know it today is not that it needs
art galleries, yoga or bunny suits; the problem is that it seeks to SEPARATE
humankind from nature (and therefore our own nature), and to offer us,
instead, the totally unproven notion that our true “home” is in some
unearthly realm that’s entirely divorced from the world of nature and all
the other animals.
And so, in a world where we all know that it’s our relationship with
nature that’s screwed, far more than our relationship with some imagined or
hoped-for non-physical realm, traditional religion is failing because it
does the very opposite of repairing that deeply broken relationship.
Meanwhile, the “end of the world” that Christianity envisions is one that
separates the “good” people and/or the “believers” from the natural world
completely and finally, teaching us that the ultimate good and the ultimate
reward is to have no relationship with nature and the animals at all.
For many, perhaps most, of these believers, nature is nothing more than a
resource in a world that's often seen as being governed by the devil.
President Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, a devout
Evangelical, was so opposed to protecting endangered species that he added
no new species whatever to the list for more than a year, causing Congress,
not exactly itself a bastion of animal protection, to amend the Endangered
Species Act in order to rein in Secretary Watt.
For the last 10,000 years or so (since around the time of the start of
the agricultural era), religions have sought to allay our fear of death by
offering us a vision of immortality (primarily through resurrection,
reincarnation, or the belief in an immortal soul), and have then sought to
capitalize on this by persuading us that only by adhering to one or other of
their belief systems can we be assured of immortality.
With very few exceptions, traditional religions either ignore or are
actively hostile to anything that seeks to reconnect us with nature. (Why
they do this is discussed in an earlier post, “I Am Not an Animal.”)
One remarkable exception to this is to be found in a lecture by Elizabeth
Johnson (photo right), past President of the Catholic Theological Society of
America and of the American Theological Society, who argues that when “the
Word was made flesh,” this was not just about the divine spirit entering
into a single human, but about the incarnation of divinity in the entire
world of nature. (See her fascinating lecture on this here.)
But people like Elizabeth Johnson are rarities, viewed with fear and
suspicion by their own Catholic orthodoxies while serving as proof to
evangelicals of the heresy of, in this case, Catholicism.
Overall, the new generation of evangelical leaders – just as in other
mainstream religions – is way off track if it thinks that our “spiritual”
needs can be met by continuing to insist that we are not fundamentally part
of the natural world but are, instead, a species apart from the other
animals, and that our tenure on Earth is just a brief prelude, if we follow
their religious dictates, to an eternity in some other dematerialized realm.
Beliefs like these may act as temporary balms for the angst and anxiety
we inevitably feel about our own mortality, but they are tenuous at best,
and they rarely succeed in alleviating that anxiety.
Pastor Mark Batterson of the National Community Church in Washington,
D.C., says that “If the kingdom of God had departments, we’d want to work in
research and development.”
But his own R&D doesn't seem to have come up with a solution to the fact
that his church has an attrition rate of 40 percent a year.
And Pastor Paul Miller of Bent Tree Ministries tells reporter O’Leary,
“We’re really building a community center, more than we are a worship
The problem, however, isn’t that the churches aren’t trying to establish
communities or aren’t doing enough R&D; it’s that in today’s world a
community center must enable us to commune not just with each other but with
the community of nature.
In both cases, the church is missing the central issue and question of
our time: How we can repair a destroyed relationship with nature.
Then again, since they are part of a system whose fear and ignorance has
been so central to the destruction of that relationship, they’re the last
people to whom anyone should be looking to help repair it.