Where are the unchurched going?

unchurchedGood for USA Today's By Cathy Lynn Grossman for writing about an important survey from the Southern Baptist Convention's LifeWay Research group that showed that people who do not go to church are finding religion elsewhere. Not many mainstream news organizations picked this one up, but it is significant and worth a closer look than what is possible the day after the numbers are released. The survey looks at the "unchurched," which is defined as those people who have not attended a single religious services -- including churches, synagogues or mosques -- in the last six months. In other words, it is looking at a section of America that journalists on the religion beat generally would not report on, but ought to.

The results are hardly surprising. The message coming out of the research group that these Americans are tired of dogmatic beliefs, but aren't necessarily hostile towards organized religion as long as it doesn't make them uncomfortable or keep them from their philosophical couch:

Non-churchgoers "lean to a generic god that fits into every imaginable religious system, even when (systems) contradict one another," Stetzer says. "If you went back 100 years in North America, there would have been a consensus that God is the God in the Bible. We can't assume this any longer.

"We no longer have a home-field advantage as Christians in this culture."

Most of the unchurched (86%) say they believe they can have a "good relationship with God without belonging to a church." And 79% say "Christianity today is more about organized religion than loving God and loving people."

As usual, the problem with these types of stories that rely almost solely on polls is that the only people quoted are those who conducted the poll. It would be interesting to get a wider range of views on these results, but as I said above, that is not an easy thing to do the day after the numbers are released.

There is also an aspect of the story that goes unanswered: Where are these Americans going for their religious and spiritual needs? This question of course assumes that they admit they have spiritual and religious needs. One gets the feeling throughout the story that Oprah and her America is part of the answer the unchurched are seeking:

"So much of American religion today is therapeutic in approach, focused on things you want to fix in your life," he says.

"The one-to-one approach is more attractive. People don't go to institutions to fix their problems.

"Most people have already heard the basic Christian message. The question for evangelism now is: Do you have a take that is authentic and engaging in a way that works for the unchurched?"

I guess you could counter and say that Oprah is an institution in this country. How many people actually end up on her couch compared to the number of viewers? But that is another topic for another post.

This trend in the United States is part of a broader story of Americans ceasing to participate in organizations and disconnecting from their local communities. But that only tells half of the story about the growth of the unchurched. There is a spiritual and theological aspect of the story as well. First there is the problem of the various churches that drive people away from the institutions for various reasons, and secondly there is the greater appeal of today's modern spiritual leaders such as Oprah.

What is the spiritual attraction of those like Oprah, and who else is out there replacing the traditional role of the church?

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