There is much intriguing data in a comprehensive religion survey released last summer by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
This respected organization made headlines with its finding that unbelief is on the rise throughout the world. In the United States, those who answer “none” when asked to identify their religion stands at around 51 million citizens, or 16.4 percent of our population.
It would be interesting to see a state-by-state and county-by-county breakdown on these figures. I suspect the percentage of south Georgians who are “none of the above” is considerably less than one in six people. (These numbers, of course, beg the question as to whether people who identify with a particular religious tradition actually behave as adherents. A sage pastor once described one of his inactive members: “When he said he was a Methodist he meant this was the church he faithfully avoided.”)
One aspect of the Pew survey that caught my attention dwelt with opinions about the church that respondents could agree or disagree with. Here are the statements and results:
- Churches and other religious organizations are too concerned with money and power.
Fifty-one percent of the general public agreed with this statement, as did 70 percent of non-churchgoers. These numbers are not particularly surprising, but 47 percent of churchgoers also agreed with this statement.
- Churches and other religious organizations are too involved with politics. Forty-six percent of the general public, 67 percent of unaffiliated persons and 41 percent of church people agree with this statement.
- Churches and other religious organizations focus too much on rules. Fifty-one percent of general public, 67 percent of unaffiliated persons and 47 percent of church people agree with this statement.
One would expect non-churchgoers to have a more negative opinion of the church, but has the church strayed perilously close to a fatal tipping point when nearly half of churchgoers believe their church is too legalistic, too involved in politics and too concerned with money and power? This survey would seem to indicate a significant group of church people could become dropouts at any given moment.
One has to take such numbers judiciously. Surveys repeatedly show, for instance, that Congress has a dreadful reputation. But the same people think very highly of their own elected representative; somebody else’s representative is the crook, sluggard or do-nothing.
The Pew Forum might have added the question, “Do you have a low opinion of the church in general, or are you describing your own congregation?” It might have also been instructive for respondents to explain what they meant by “politics.” Most of us don’t have a problem with “politics” when we get our way as a result.
No matter how one tries to interpret the above results, however, the problem looms for religious organizations. Have the tenets of grace, love, mercy, justice and generosity been overcome with bureaucracy, power plays and institutional survival and fund-raising? These serious questions must be addressed by the faithful.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.