Why the Churches Are Failing

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Why the Churches Are Failing

[Ed. Note: Please also read Are Religions Bad for Animals?]

By Michael Mountain, Earth in Transition
January 2013

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 times.

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 destroying.

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 center.”

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.