Monday, January 12, 2009

Barna and The Belief Buffet

Although just one of many voices, George Barna has made a career out of taking the religious pulse of the United States and suggesting the implications of those results for individuals, churches, and the country as a whole. His latest offering, headlined "Christianity is No Longer America's Default Faith" explores the increasing tendency of Americans to either choose no faith at all or to pick and choose from a variety of beliefs and spiritual practices to meet their needs. The article is a good one, well worth reading, and the implications of the study results are summed up at the end as follows:
  1. The Christian faith is less of a life perspective that challenges the supremacy of individualism as it is a faith being defined through individualism. Americans are increasingly comfortable picking and choosing what they deem to be helpful and accurate theological views and have become comfortable discarding the rest of the teachings in the Bible.

  2. Growing numbers of people now serve as their own theologian-in-residence. One consequence is that Americans are embracing an unpredictable and contradictory body of beliefs. Barna pointed out, as examples, that millions of people who consider themselves to be Christian now believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the lessons it teaches at the same time that they believe Jesus Christ sinned. Millions also contend that they will experience eternal salvation because they confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior, but also believe that a person can do enough good works to earn eternal salvation.

  3. In the past, when most people determined their theological and moral points of view, the alternatives from which they chose were exclusively of Christian options - e.g., the Methodist point of view, the Baptist perspective, Catholic teaching, and so forth. Today, Americans are more likely to pit a variety of non-Christian options against various Christian-based views. This has resulted in an abundance of unique worldviews based on personal combinations of theology drawn from a smattering of world religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam as well as secularism.

  4. Faith, of whatever variety, is increasingly viral rather than pedagogical. With people spending less time reading the Bible, and becoming less engaged in activities that deepen their biblical literacy, faith views are more often adopted on the basis of dialogue, self-reflection, and observation than teaching. Feelings and emotions now play a significant role in the development of people’s faith views - in many cases, much more significant than information-based exercises such as listening to preaching and participating in Bible study.
It almost goes without saying that this has huge implications for the church, especially the Episcopal Church which is both very rooted in words (Bible, Prayer Book, Hymnal, etc...) while also being rich in multi-sensory symbols (water of baptism, bread and wine of Eucharist, candles, stained glass, etc...). The traditional Evangelical way of converting folks to Christianity and enriching their spiritual lives focuses primarily on preaching and Bible study. The above statements reflect the fact that people are becoming more individualistic, less likely to have (or take) the time to do much Bible study (much less do serious theological reflection), and are perfectly comfortable with holding contradictory views taken from a variety of religious traditions. This is sometimes, in my opinion, without actually knowing much about their own faith tradition (if they have one)! A great example of this is the practice of a Christian incorporating Buddhist meditation practices into his or her spiritual practice without realizing that there is a rich Christian tradition of contemplative prayer from which to draw without having to graft in practices from another faith tradition. Of special note is the last observation that "faith views are more often adopted on the basis of dialogue, self-reflection, and observation than teaching."

I would suggest that, at its best and done well, worship in the Episcopal Church and associated programs that emphasize such
dialogue, self-reflection, and observation are the primary means by which we might best enter into the conversation that is likely to be the only way to conversion for most people. The challenge for us is to do such things ourselves rather than taking who we are and what we do for granted. The misquoted line from Field of Dreams "If we build it, they will come" (it is actually "If you build it, he will come.") applies here. We can build anything we want: people are not coming unless they have a reasonable expectation of finding a place in which they can enter into dialogue without limitations or pretense, self-reflection without pressure to conform, and observation without pressure to participate.

Quite a tall order for the church at the dawn of the twenty-first century!

1 comment:

Fred Preuss said...

"It's true because I FEEL it's true!"
At last, you admit you can't prove any of it. Thank you for your candor. Now will you please get those people in silly outfits away from the capitol building.