It's tempting to write year-end reflection pieces, or to predict what is to come. But I've become bored of these.
Year-end stories are designed to focus on the sensational, the harrowing, and the worst possible scenario. In just the past week, the former president of Shell Oil Company projected 5 dollar per gallon gas by the end of 2011. For those who really like to worry, try Gartner's picks for the coming year--sabotage, terrorism, labor jobs lost to more automation.
Pass the antacids, please.
So it shouldn't surprise ministers that Gallup picks this week to announce that religion's influence is waning. Nee, all but ready to fall off the face of the earth. 70 percent of Americans say religion's influence is declining--the highest percentage in 35 years.
So shall it be!
Or will it?
What is it that people are really telling us? That America is rushing headlong to the death of the American congregation? The truth is, it's hard to know what the Gallup survey is telling us. Perhaps Americans don't sense religion's influence in politics any longer, so they answer the Gallup question accordingly (and this could well be it).
Perhaps they listen to reports of declining membership and assume this foretells the beginning of the end for houses of worship. If this is the case, then the perception is quite wrong. While the recession has certainly hurt coffers, we have not witnessed the mass closings for houses of worship. Further, research out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln demonstrates that church attendance levels are basically unchanged, even if the make up of those in the pews is changing significantly. (See also this CNN story.)
Those interested in pursuing ministry as a profession remain stable. Though down slightly from 2005, seminaries continue to attact individuals interested in pursuing pastoral ministry as a career.
Do respondees feel that religious discussion is waning? That, too, would be hard to sell. The demand for books about spirituality has never been higher, and publishers are looking to fill readers' desire for still more by recruiting scholars to write more books for the general market.
If the idea of congregations sliding into oblivion is greatly exaggerated, what is the influence that people feel is missing?
Unfortunately, we're not soothsayers here at Congregational Resource Guide. But I do have a hunch. This year's blockbuster religion book, American Grace (read the excellent synopsis by Tim Shapiro) has observed that what has happened to faith in America is that we have become more tolerant of other religious traditions, and more diverse in our practice. This radical restructuring of how we approach faith requires people to adjust, and think anew about faith. It may seem less influential today because we're in flux, but we're really just re-inventing.
And as the dust settles, it is to America's congregations that people will return (and in fact, already are) for clarity. My year end prediction is hardly sensational. The coming year is one of great promise, and great opporunity for America's congregational leaders.
You won't find this prediction on the being bantered on the daily talk shows, or splashed on the cover of Newsweek. But it is one that should give all of us great hope.
Happy New Year.
This article was originally published by the Alban Institute.