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Crisis of the Churches

Americans have less confidence today in organized religion than ever, according to a new Gallup survey. Excerpt:

“In the ’80s the church and organized religion were the No. 1″ in Gallup’s annual look at confidence in institutions, said Lydia Saad, author of the report released Wednesday.

Confidence, she said, “is a value judgment on how the institution is perceived, a mark of the amount of respect it is due.” A slight upsurge for Catholic confidence, for example, parallels the 2013 election and immense popularity of Pope Francis.

Overall, church and organized religion is now ranked in fourth place in the Gallup survey — behind the military, small business and the police — while still ahead of the medical system, Congress and the media, among 15 institutions measured.

“Almost all organizations are down but the picture for religion is particularly bleak,” said Saad.

In the mid-’70s, nearly 7 in 10 Americans said they had “a great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in the church or organized religion. That has bobbled downward decade by decade to a new low of just 42%, according to the report.

How about you? I’m curious to know how religious readers would answer the poll. Me, I would have expressed little confidence in religious institutions, though I am a believer in them. Why little confidence? Leaving aside particular cases (e.g., the Catholic bishops regarding the sex abuse scandal, and the Synod of the Orthodox Church in America over its inability to deal with corruption in its ranks), I believe as a general matter that the leadership class in American churches is disconnected from the world as it actually is. It doesn’t perceive the real threats and challenges to the faith, much less does it know how to respond effectively. It’s not so much that they’re too liberal (though some are) or too conservative (though I suppose some are that too), as that they’re Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, in practice.

The recent Pew survey numbers found that among Evangelicals, nondenominational churches, which downplay doctrinal distinctives, are doing well. Joel Miller highlights the problem with the simple, “all you need is Jesus” theology that many find attractive in these churches:

Yes, you better have Jesus. But no, that’s not all. For starters, you need the actual Jesus, and that involves doctrinal statements and formulae. You also need to know what he said, and that involves some challenging words preserved, parsed, interpreted, and presented by a long string of church theologians, hymnographers, and artists.

The faith is not doctrine. But doctrine is one crucial way we accurately express it. It’s inescapable.

The trend of Christians increasingly concentrating in churches that tend to place less emphasis on doctrine is, thus, worrying. But the truth is that all churches suffer from this challenge to one degree or another, especially in America. We are an anti-doctrinal people, and the numbers show that as well.

Follow that link in Miller’s last line, and it’ll take you to a 2014 survey about “theological awareness” conducted by Lifeway Research. It’s shocking in its revelations about the widespread ignorance among American Christians about basic Christian doctrines and beliefs. Even allowing for the fact that there are a few particularly Protestant points on which a faithful Orthodox or Catholic believer would dissent, the numbers are still breathtaking. Here’s something that sheds light on the new Gallup numbers:

Less than half of Americans see the church as a necessity. The majority of adults do not see authority in sermons. One of the most overwhelming responses of the entire survey was the 68% who disagreed strongly that the local church has authority to declare whether they are a Christian or not. Less than one in ten agreed. While the survey reveals that 57% of Americans speak of the value of church history, the survey reveals that the strong majority, 70%, have no place for church history in their personal discipleship.

• 52% of Americans agree “Worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church.”

• 56% agree “My pastor’s sermons are not authoritative over my life.”

• 57% disagree with the sentiment “There is little value in studying and/or reciting creeds and catechisms.”

If you dig deeper into the study, you find that only 32 percent of Catholics “strongly disagree” with the statement about “little value in studying and/or reciting creeds and catechisms.” This is a catastrophe for Catholic Christianity, which is profoundly creedal. Another astonishing finding: fewer Catholics (17 percent) agree that sex outside of marriage is always sinful than do Mainline Protestants (21 percent). Evangelicals were much stronger on this basic Biblical teaching (63 percent).

Now, you have to be careful reading the study because the overall numbers include non-believers (Ligonier Ministries, which commissioned the poll, wanted to measure the theological awareness of those Americans outside the church as well as those inside). Plus, as I said, some of the questions understandably assume that Evangelical doctrines (e.g., Biblical inerrancy) are true and normative. The main thrust of the survey, though, is that American Christianity is unmoored from doctrine, creed, and from the historic church, and is a highly individualistic, atomized, ahistorical form of religion. This is not going to last. It may have sufficed to keep nominal Christians connected to the faith when the culture was generally Christian, but those days are over. I believe we Americans are going to see a massive, European-style falling away from Christianity in this century. And I don’t think most church leaders see it coming.

Is this a problem of leadership alone, or also a problem of followership? If bold, convicted, theologically grounded leaders arose within the churches, would they be welcomed, and heeded — or would the masses remain with their MTD congregations, until they or their children, bored and exhausted and unable to see what the point of Christianity is, drifted off into the ether?


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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