Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Whoever wins in November is likely to do so with a razor thin margin.  We are a divided nation.  Just consider for a moment a situation where our president would garner 60% of the vote or even 75%.  That would be a landslide.  Beyond constituting a clear mandate, it would make most of us rethink some of our basic assumptions about the country and politics, specifically about the idea that we are a divided nation.

Well 60% of Americans tell pollsters that they don't regularly attend religious worship services.  Questioning even that number, researchers C. Kirk Hadaway and P.L. Marler, undertook a headcount in both urban and non-urban churches.  They found that in fact 75% of the congregants absented themselves from weekly worship.  That was back in 1998 and the number of Americans who identify with no religion at all has doubled since then.  Take your pick, 60 or 75%, most Americans don’t attend worship regularly — by and landslide.

American Catholic Weekly
Low church and synagogue attendance has long been a concern of clergy across faiths who look out each week on empty pews that once were filled.  In some instances, the problem has become so acute that institutions have had to close down or merge with others.  Church leaders have looked for innovative ways to draw more worshipers, often with what amounts to gimmickry.  They will create occasions honoring some day or notable, have special music services, invite a guest speaker or, best of all, involve children who are likely to drag their parents along.  Some will even opt to tweak the liturgy hoping to make it more “user friendly”. Megachurches draw crowds by unabashedly raising the entertainment value, from inspirational sermonizing to mounting professional level musical performances.

That’s all well and good, but why has attendance dropped off and why is religion, albeit followed or paid lip service by the majority, in decline?  The two are related.  For a relatively small segment of the population religiosity and daily life are profoundly integrated into a holistic one.  While Sabbaths and holy days may be set aside as special, every day and every activity is grounded in a singular belief system, every decision weighed against accepted and immovable standards.  They constitute the reliable regulars at worship.  But these “integrators”, as I like to call them, are in the minority.  

For the majority of those who identify themselves, certainly as Christians or Jews, religion is a distinct even separate part of their life, essentially segregated from the every day.  I like to think of these people as “doing” religion “by appointment”.  Religion is something that goes on the calendar, sometimes literally so.  The problem with appointments is that they are generally of time and place — and here is the important thing — to be kept or not.  We may eat our meals at more or less the same time every day, but we don’t consider breakfast, lunch or dinner appointments, optional activities.  In our professional lives, appointments are sometimes broken because something more important causes a conflict.  In our personal lives, we may just find something better to do.  As Bill Gates once told Walter Isaacson, “There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning”.

If I had to identify one reason why religion is in decline today, it wouldn’t necessarily be a loss of faith.  That does happen and long term may be determinant, but I would suggest “by appointment” is religion’s worst nightmare.  Functionally, by appointment, with its implied option is what’s undermining religion more than anything else.  Ask one of the many Jews who grew up Orthodox but have since moved away and you’ll probably find that the drift started when they stopped regularly attending services. 

Of course this appointment phenomenon is nothing new.  Easter Sunday Christians and Yom Kippur Jews have been the rule rather than the exception for as long as I can remember.  Without their nominal participation, most churches and synagogues would be in deep trouble.  Problem is, the children of these appointment participants look at their life-example parents and opt to drop the pretense.  Having better things to do, they stop marking their calendars.  For sure they don't attend worship — by a landslide.   Shouldn't that make us rethink the basic assumption that we are a religious nation?

More on this coming to a digital device near you — it’s called Transcenders and it will be available soon.

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