Growing up in the space age, I was—like most of the children in my community and around the country—smitten with the race to the moon. And while nothing to date has matched the thrill that night in 1969 when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, my interest in space travel and science has never ended. How can it, when our knowledge, and understanding of what is left to explore, grows everyday?
Exploration—it has driven humanity from the very beginning. When teaching Western Civilization years ago at the University of South Carolina, my students were most floored by how mobile early cultures were. For the Phoenicians, the ocean was not a boundary to be feared but a highway to discovery. Vikings and Germanic tribes had wanderlust seemingly in their blood.
I thought of all this as I reviewed a recent study released by the estimable U.S. Congregational Life Survey conducted by my friend Cynthia Woolever. While the numbers of participants in congregations continue to decline, the study finds five reasons to feel hopeful about congregations. As summarized by David Briggs at The ARDA:
More caring ministries: Congregations and their members are more active outside the sanctuary walls. In the latest survey, 18 percent of worshippers said wider community care and advocacy were one of the three most valued aspects of the congregation; in 2001, just 11 percent ranked community care in the top three. Worshippers in 2008-2009 also were significantly more likely to report that they were involved in social service or advocacy groups outside the congregation and contributed money to a charitable group other than the church.
Climbing the academic ladder: The percentage of worshipers with a college degree rose from 38 percent in 2001 to 47 percent in the latest survey. “In the past, the pastor was often the most educated person in the room – but not any more.” researcher Cynthia Woolever says. And that matters. “These highly educated worshipers have high expectations about the content/style of worship, how decisions are made, and the efficiency of congregational ‘achievement,’” she adds.
Keeping up with the technological times: The 2008-2009 survey found more than three-quarters of congregations had established websites, up from 43 percent in 2001. In addition to keeping members informed of upcoming events, more than half of the sites post sermons and list opportunities for service. Seventy-four percent of congregations also use e-mail in ways that range from publicizing events to sharing joys and concerns of churchgoers and sending out devotional messages.
More diverse leadership: You just have to look around in many churches to notice a gender imbalance. Still, survey researchers say the consistent finding that six in 10 worshipers are women remains one of their most asked-about results. What is growing, however, is the diversity of leadership in mainline Protestant churches, where 28 percent of pastors are women, up from 20 percent in 2001. New research using survey data also finds female pastors are in general more satisfied in their ministry than male pastors and are strong in welcoming new people. Almost two in five pastors of growing churches are women.
Happy people in the pews: Eighty-seven percent of worshipers in the latest survey said they were satisfied with their spiritual life, up from 82 percent who expressed satisfaction in the 2001 survey. More than three in four worshippers say they always or usually experience a sense of God’s presence, inspiration and joy in worship. Nearly nine in 10 respondents said worship helps them with everyday living.
What’s missing? The exploration. Better put, any sense that there is something new to learn by attending church.
To be sure, there is a great deal of “learning” that goes on. But as the list above shows, it’s inward growth—growth that makes us better people. People who go to church are “satisfied with their spiritual li[ves],” and they’re more “concerned about community care.” These are valuable things to “learn.” They are important. And churches will long have a role to play in propagating these lessons.
The problem is, there is nothing here that can’t be learned in other civil institutions. I wonder if members of lodges and social organizations don’t feel equally good about how their organizations make them feel about themselves and the communities they live in.
And this is something that ministerial leaders are acutely aware. As one minister says to me, “if this is all we are, we are nothing more than a social service group.” So, what sets the church apart? Why would people want to become involved?
For most of the church’s life, there was much to explore. Understanding who Jesus “was” in the ancient church was no intellectual exercise—it as a real exploration into the relationship between a very real God and a very troubled creation. Anselm’s ontological proof was no mere fantasy, but arose out of real questions surrounding the reality of God emerging in the Middle Ages. Arguments over who could be baptized or receive communion consumed Jonathan Edwards because lives were genuinely at stake in the decision.
Today, these questions are no longer questions of exploration, but history. Interesting, to be sure; complex; but not on the cutting edge. Arguments over the person of Jesus seem a waste of time when our very understanding of just how vast the universe we inhabit, and how insignificant we may really be, is being hotly debated. Questions of communion are hard to take seriously as we come closer to understanding and manipulating the building blocks upon which we are created.
No matter if one looks toward the stars, or inward to the Higgs boson, exploration is alive and well and redefining what it means to be human. The idea that we require a “standard” by which to measure our growth (the Bible or the historical debates over humanity and sin and theology) rings hollow in the face of our shifting definitions of what life itself is and whether or not the universe itself is a breathing organism that faces its own mortality.
For all these reasons, I have increasingly come to believe that exploration is dead in churches—conservative and liberal—because there’s nothing left within faith to explore.
The faithful have struggled to name those who are increasingly uninterested in what the church is selling. We’re called “Nones,” or “Homeless,” or “atheists,” or “agnostics.” The list goes on. The problem I have with all these names is that they are efforts on the part of the faithful to name those of us who no longer feel compelled to look to the church for our sustenance.
And each of these names suggests that we have chosen this path because we’ve lost something, because we don’t have a place in the institution to push our boundaries of spiritual growth.
But the truth is, it’s not what we’ve lost, but what the formal religions have lost—a sense of exploration. An ability to teach us anything new.