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Churches need more religion

05 June 2015

by Harriet Baber

THE United States is currently in the midst of what pundits are calling the "Great Decline" in religiosity. New Pew Research data show a precipitous decline in membership for all Christian groups from 2007 to 2014, and an even steeper rise in the percentage of "Nones" - individuals who say they "have no religion" - who now represent 23 per cent of the population, and one third of the youngest adults.

Since the decline in religious participation became apparent a half-century ago, church leaders have speculated about the causes of decline - and how it might be reversed. Most assumed that religiosity, or at least "spirituality", was a universal human impulse. If only churches could package their product attractively, they thought, and cut out the nasty bits, all would be well. So for decades they tried everything.

But they asked why people were abandoning religion, without addressing the more fundamental question why people were religious in the first place. If they had, they would have realised that religion is a special taste.

Churches thrive where they address secular needs that are not otherwise satisfied. Where medical care is inadequate, people look to the Church for healing. Where people are poor, they flock to churches that preach the prosperity gospel. In the Global South, where government is often corrupt and secular institutions ineffectual, the Church is growing. Where secular institutions fail, people look to the Church. In affluent countries, where people are well off and their secular needs are satisfied by secular institutions, they leave the Church.

There is no reason why people who are served by effective secular institutions and are well off should bother with church, unless churches have something on offer that the secular world does not provide. Churches have that: they have religion - that is, metaphysics, mysticism, sacred space, and ceremony. Most people don't have the taste for religion. But it is a taste that can be cultivated. And more people might acquire the taste, if they saw what the Church had to offer.

For decades, churches have been jettisoning metaphysics, gutting churches, and rebranding themselves as "communities" devoted to mutual support and social service, in the hope of attracting secular people. This is, however, precisely what secular people, whose secular needs are satisfied, do not need or want from the Church. All the Church has to offer people who are materially well off is religion. There may not be many takers. But if churches abandon religion, there will be none at all.

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