The Common Good

What the Numbers Say About Losing Our Religion

Among the list of U.S. institutions—banks, the medical system, the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress—where would you pin organized religion?

Statue of bishop photo, Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com
Statue of bishop photo, Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

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According to a recent Gallup poll, it comes in fourth, falling behind the military, small business, and police. Only 44 percent of Americans have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the church—a downward fall that has been trending since its height in the 1970s. 

Drilling down, Protestants tend to have higher confidence—56 percent—in their churches than Catholics, who fall in at 46 percent. (Commentary is linking this to the child abuse scandals.)

Organized religion isn't alone in this. The overall lack of confidence in American institutions is evident across the board, with television news at 21 percent and Congress at an abysmal 13 percent. Even public schools come in at 29 percent. 

But is this at all surprising? 

I'll admit, when I first read the headline, "American Confidence in Religion at An All Time Low," I laughed and added it to my "things-that-everyone-already-knows-but-is-still-reported-as-news" file. (Yeah, I have one of those.)

The numbers and percentages offer weight, but for years we've been telling about the droves leaving organized religion in favor of something more relational. Amid sex scandals, financial ripoffs, an increasing political polarization of our pulpits, many are finding that their most meaningful encounters with the divine happen outside its supposed home. 

A favorite read of mine over the past couple of months was one of Rachel Held Evans' in which she explains her feelings about Sunday mornings. (It's a beautiful piece.)

"God makes sense to me under the trees, and God makes sense to me in poetry and prayer, and God makes sense to me in Eucharist and Baptism and community and even creeds ... but not in the offering plate, not in the building campaign, not in the pastor-who-shall-not-be-questioned, not in the politics, not in the assumptions about what a good Christian girl ought to be." 

I think that sentiment is shared by a large part of my generation. The office of pastor, bishop, church leader, while to be respected, shouldn't be worshipped. Inerrancy isn't a thing.

When you put all of your faith in religion—in a person, a building, a hierarchy of titles—you're bound to lose it. 

I do believe there is a way to balance a real, meaningful relationship with God and corporate, institutional membership. It's in knowing what is important … in knowing the why. Why do we take the body and blood? Why do we recite the creed? It's in knowing that the Scripture the pastor reads is more important than who he or she is. It's in creating a safe space where experiencing God is the priority, where relationships are sacred, and where its people are being the Church.

And it's in knowing that if the pastors, elders, church council walk out the door tomorrow—if the whole denomination folds in on itself—that Christ is still real, and God is still there in the people.  

So I guess I'm not part of the 44 percent. I don't have confidence in religion; I have confidence in the cross. 

Sandi Villarreal is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners. You can follow her on Twitter @Sandi

Statue of bishop photo, Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

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