Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Interfaith Congregations for the 21st Century
Yesterday I blogged on how the concept of the Interfaith Center model developed in the mid-sixties by Rouse and the planners of Columbia. That historical perspective on how people worshiped has changed substantially in the past 50 years. In the mid-sixties there was a close association with denominations that each had their separate religious beliefs. What has changed in the past 50 years?
According to the poll by the research company Aris the percentage of Americans who define themselves as Christian has dropped from 86 percent in 1990 to 76 percent in 2008. In one of the most dramatic shifts, 15 percent of Americans now say they have no religion -- a figure that's almost doubled in 18 years. Americans with no religious preference are now larger than all other major religious groups except Catholics and Baptists. Megachurches are booming, rising from 5 to 11.8 percent of the population. And with the economy in free fall, many megachurches say they're seeing increased attendance. They're praying that perhaps hard times will draw Americans back to their faith.
In a report by Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge & Donald A. Luidens this decline is described this way,
“America's so-called mainline Protestant churches aren't what they used to be. For generations on end, the Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and kindred denominations reported net annual membership gains. As recently as the 1950s their growth rate equaled or exceeded that of the United States as a whole.
But in the early 1960s their growth slowed down, and after the middle of the decade they had begun to lose members. With very few exceptions, the decline has continued to this date. Never before had any large religious body in this country lost members steadily for so many years. By 1990 these denominations had lost between one-fifth and one-third of the membership they claimed in 1965 and the proportion of Americans affiliated with them had reached a twentieth-century low.
The first step toward identifying these special factors was the discovery, in the late 1970s, that the principal source of the decline was the tendency of many adolescents who had been confirmed in these denominations from the early 1960s on to drop out of church and not return. It was the children of the members themselves-and especially those born after World War II-who were leading the exodus. Some, of course, returned to church when they married and had children, but not enough to replenish the ranks. In the meantime, of course, the average age of the membership was steadily increasing. One can sit today in the balcony of a typical United Methodist church and look over a congregation of graying and balding heads. Unless there is a surge of new recruits, rising death rates will diminish the ranks of the mainline denominations even further in the years ahead.”
As I have talked with other baby boomers about their religious journeys from the strict religious doctrines of growing up in the 50’s and 60’s to a more liberal belief system that accepted other religious beliefs as valid I have noticed that our children have moved the bar even farther to a rejection of religious beliefs. It is not uncommon to hear that the generation in their 20’s and 30’s are agnostic or atheist. How this generation will look at religious faith as they age is still to be determined. This trend would place the United States more in line with European countries in regard to religious belief.
In Howard County we have seen the new non-denominational congregations develop that move the interfaith concept from separate congregations sharing a building to the congregation itself being interfaith. Congregations such as Kittamaqundi Community Church, Bridgeway and Grace are examples of congregations that draw membership from many different traditional denominations. When you include a denomination like the Unitarians that have a long history of attracting members from many religious faiths you can see that this is probably the new model of the interfaith religious congregations.
Rouse would probably be pleased to see that the interfaith concept is still alive but in a form that goes beyond just sharing space.