In July, Gallup released findings that American confidence in organized religion is at its lowest point ever. Just 44 percent of Americans expressed “a great deal, or quite a lot of confidence” in the Church/Organized Religion, down from 48 percent a year ago. In 1972, 66 percent expressed confidence in organized religion. Gallup conducts the survey annually as part of its “Confidence in Institutions” poll, which gages how Americans feel about 16 institutions. Organized religion is fourth from the top, which is occupied by “the military.” What’s at the bottom of the list? You guessed it: Congress.
Just days after the release of the Gallup findings, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat questioned “Can Liberal Christianity Can Be Saved?” taking aim at the Episcopal Church as the epitome of left-wing Christianity. Douthat sees the Church’s 23 percent decline in average Sunday attendance between 2000 and 2010 as proof of “something between a decline and a collapse.” He lays the blame on the Episcopal Church’s being “…flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.” Douthat sees the Episcopal Church as the front-runner in an over-all decline in liberal Christianity in other mainline religions.
Author Diana Butler Bass, who writes on religion and culture, has another take on the decline. Writing in the Huffington Post the day after the Times article appeared, Bass posed a much bigger question: “Can Christianity Be Saved?” Both flavors of the Christian faith, liberal and conservative, are in decline (as the Gallup poll indicates); Bass points to defections in the Southern Baptist Convention (one of the most conservative religious organizations in the country) and the Roman Catholic Church (hardly a bastion of liberalism).
Bass detects shoots of new life in Christianity, and she documents them in her book Christianity After Religion. An awakening is taking place, Bass argues. “A grass-roots affair to be sure,” Bass writes in her Huffington article, “sputtering along in local churches, prompted by good pastors doing hard work, and theologians mostly unknown to the larger culture. Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation.”
If another Great Awakening is under way, what does this mean for those who design environments for worship? One thing is certain: the art and architecture of Christianity, post-religion, will look very different. Bass writes that this new awakening is being performed in a networked world with a porous border between sacred and profane, where the love of God and neighbor is performed far from traditional settings of worship. “Although churches seem the most natural space to perform spiritual awakening, the disconcerting reality is that many people in Western society see churches more as museums of religion than sacred stages that dramatize the movement of God’s spirit.” The same is true for synagogues, mosques, temples, and other houses of worship, because this awakening is an interfaith phenomenon.
Bass describes places of performance and encounter as the new stages for awakening. How can we make existing and new places of worship more welcoming, hospitable, and ready for spiritual renewal? Their creation must be a collaborative dance of community.Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached via our contact form.