Longtime GetReligion readers know that I have always been interested in demographic questions and their impact on religious life in America and around the world. As the old saying goes, "Demographics are destiny." I have been known, from time to time, to add another "D" into that equation, producing something like, "Doctrine and demographics are destiny."
Say what? All I am saying is that you can often see connections between what people believe, in terms of doctrine, and the size and shape of their families and religious communities. Why do some parishes have more children (and priests) than others? Why is Orthodox Judaism growing in many cities while liberal forms of the faith are not?
These kinds of questions were at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which centered on a few statistics in a new poll commissioned by the national edition of The Deseret News. While one poll is never definitive, there were numbers in this one that stood out for me, raising questions I explored this week in my "On Religion" column for the Universal syndicate.
In particular, I was interested in what might be evidence of a change in one of the most stable religion statistics in the American marketplace. That led to this overture:
In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, many news reports claimed that stunned Americans were seeking solace in sanctuary pews and in private rites of faith.
But then the Gallup Poll came out, with its familiar question asking if people had recently attended worship services. The number who had, which has hovered between 38 percent and the low 40s for a generation or two, had risen to 47 percent -- a marginal increase. By mid-November, the Gallup number returned to 42 percent.
That 40-ish percent church-attendance estimate has long been an iconic number in American religion.
Thus, it's significant that a new Deseret News poll asked, "Which, if any, of the following activities do you usually do on a typical (Sabbath)?" and only 27 percent of the participants said they regularly attended worship services.
This poll, I noted, was part of a project -- "The Ten Today" -- exploring the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern American life. The goal was to explore some of the practical implications of Exodus 20:8, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."
This discussion pushed podcast host Todd Wilken and me in a number of directions, but the common thread was this: When a change occurs in this kind of statistic, what are the questions this raises about real life among real people in real religious communities?
This just happens to have been one of the defining questions in the life and polling work of the late George Gallup, Jr. It's one thing to ask people if they go to church (and trust them to be honest in their answers). It's something else, he told me several times, to try to find out if the beliefs they claim to affirm shape their actions in real life. Here's a large sample of what one of those conversations was like, from a 2004 column:
"Surveys reveal an unprecedented desire for religious and spiritual growth among people in all walks of life and in every region of the nation," he said. "There is an intense searching for spiritual moorings, a hunger for God. It is for churches to seize the moment and to direct this often vague and free-floating spirituality into a solid and lived-out faith."
The key, he said, is that too many pastors naively assume that church members know and understand the core doctrines of their own faith.
"For example, half of all Protestants have no idea whatsoever what the word 'grace' means and what it has to do with their salvation," he said, in an interview not long after the Massachusetts address. "Now, that's pretty basic doctrine. Pastors today assume that their people know the basics. They don't."
Clergy assume that believers are familiar with the contents of those Bibles sitting on their bookshelves. They assume church members understand the teachings of other major religions and can hold thoughtful, respectful conversations about the differences between these faiths.
Many even assume their members sincerely want to repent of their sins, amend their lives and become serious Christians.
Gallup said he is constantly shocked to hear that few pastors ever ask members -- person to person, face to face -- about the status of their faith and personal lives. Many pastors no longer see the need to openly discuss the impact of sin.
"Someone has to challenge people to be true disciples of Christ," he said. "Someone has to ask the hard questions. If we don't talk about the whole dimension of sin, repentance, grace and forgiveness, what is the faith all about? What are we doing? ... Without true discipleship, the church can simply turn into a social services agency."
In conclusion, I'd like to point readers towards a First Things think piece that digs into one of these practical questions about belief and action. The key question: Why are there so few fathers sitting in the pews of some crucial (especially Catholic) churches? Isn't that a crucial question, if worship attendance is truly falling?