Sketchy Statistics and Hope for Renaissance

We have a little break in the action this afternoon here at the Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry.  I’ve heard several compelling sermons and lectures.  I’ve enjoyed good fellowship.  It has been richly challenging.  And I’ve done some teaching.  One more session to go, tomorrow morning.

Epworth-by-the-Sea

And it’s all happening at Epworth-by-the-Sea, a United Methodist center here in South Georgia.  It thus places me geographically in the neighborhood of John and Charles’ Wesley’s mission to the Georgia colony ca. 1737.  I’m going to hit a couple of the Wesley sites tomorrow after we’ve finished.  Today, standing in the shadow of our great Methodist forbears, I’m thinking about that United Methodist Reporter article I re-tweeted yesterday – that a Gallup organization representative thinks a renaissance in religion might be coming.  (http://www.unitedmethodistreporter.com/2013/01/qa-dont-rule-out-a-renaissance-of-religion-in-north-america)

Call me Eeyore.

The opening line reads: “Despite a deep drop in the number of Americans who identify with a particular faith, the country could be on the cusp of a religious renaissance, says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of The Gallup Poll.”  He’s author of a new book, God is Alive and Well.  The article summarizes signs of this potential renaissance: “…the aging of the baby boomers, the influx of Hispanic immigrants and the links between religion and health could portend a bright future for faith in America,” (italics added).  Wow.

Please, Lord, let it be so.  And forgive me for doubting.  I just don’t see anything in these trends that says, “renaissance.”

Mr. Newport is not himself predicting a renaissance.  He’s simply pointing to factors that, read one way, might lead to renaissance.  Likewise, he rightly cautions that “nones” (the focus of lots of recent attention) covers people who actually are believers in some sense.  That’s a good thing.  Here I actually find good news.  The rise in “nones” does not mean a lessening interest in God.  In fact, I find a significant degree of openness to God-talk among people who are skeptical of religion, provided we engage in honest and kind conversation.

But, renaissance?  I just don’t see how these three factors, highlighted in the article, portend even a possible renaissance.  To be sure, the interview does say, “Don’t rule out.”  I would never do that.  God can break out any time.

So, what do we make of these trends?

1.  Baby Boomers are moving in to the 65-85 cohort and generally people in that category are more religiously observant (they go to church, etc.) than younger generations.  Gallup has been watching this pattern for decades.  Good.  Older people are more religiously observant.  We already knew that.  God bless ’em.

2.  The country’s increasing “Hispanic population tends to be more religious.”  The Catholic Church benefits the most here.  This amounts to a blood transfusion for a hemorrhaging patient, not signs of a renaissance.  To be sure, new blood can bring new life, but the mere fact that the Catholic church’s drooping numbers will be held in check by Hispanic immigrants does not mean “renaissance.”

3.  “Religion has been correlated to health, so more people seek out religion because it’s good for them.”  Newport quickly notes that correlation does not mean causation: does being religious cause better health or are healthy people just religious?  Don’t know, but there’s a connection between the two for which we can feel grateful.

Signs of a renaissance?  I just don’t see it.

My worry: any scrap of something that looks like good news will be taken as more significant than we should take it.  We  thereby keep choosing the rags rather than the wedding garment.

John Wesley did say – and many of us like to quote – that he wasn’t worried that Methodism would cease to exist.  What worried him was our becoming a dead sect – having the form and lacking the power of godliness.  Spending time here at Epworth-by-the-Sea, I’m thinking about what Mr. Wesley said.

Spiritual renewal requires a number of important and difficult things.  At the core of any renewal we must find a fierce, unqualified allegiance to Jesus Christ and him crucified, raised and reigning.  To his teaching, to his embodiment and description of the life of discipleship.  And his teaching on discipleship covers all domains of life, from personal to political.

There’s nothing easy about spiritual renewal.  I surely do hope that we don’t use a few sketchy statistics to prop up a fragile faux hope and miss the chance at the real thing.

 

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Marc Willis says:

    Unfortunately, our data-driven UMC leadership will grasp at demographics as the message her, when the sewage is The Message. A church without intentional faith development at its core cannot survive. No demographic shift will change that. It’s probably long past time for the laity of the UMC to take responsibility for their own faith and church. Bishops be damned, we don’t need any more managers, we need real visionary leadership.

  2. Back in 1970 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, delivered the following words, that I think have a certain relevance to this discussion,

    “The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members….

    “It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . . The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

    “And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”

    The book, “Faith and the Future” can be found here – http://www.amazon.com/Faith-Future-Joseph-Ratzinger/dp/1586172190/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1360098167&sr=8-1&keywords=faith+and+the+future

  3. There are some fascinating points in time in this post but I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There is certainly some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Great article , thanks and we want even more! Added to FeedBurner also

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