Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Lessening of Religious Intensity

While reading last night, I was struck by the following words by church historian Rodney Stark in his book The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion:

Because erstwhile monopoly religions inevitably are relatively lax, lazy, and worldly, most of their opposition will come from groups promoting a far more intense faith--from sects, that being the name given to high intensity religious groups.  Monopoly religions slide into accommodation with their social surroundings even when they were first established by those committed to an intense faith.  One reason that a monopoly religion drifts toward laxity is that religious intensity is never transmitted very efficiently from one generation to the next.  Inevitably, many of the sons and daughters of sect members prefer a lower-tension faith than did their parents.  So long as leadership positions in a sect are restricted to those who are committed to the original standards, a sect can sustain a relatively high level of intensity.  But when these positions are hereditary, and when they are highly rewarded as well (so that the less "religious" seldom depart for other careers), the institution will soon be dominated by those favoring a lower level of intensity.  (Kindle Edition page 38)

Stark uses the term "monopoly" rather loosely, and I would use the equivalent as dominant.  Stark readily admits that no culture has a complete monopoly religion--all cultures have some sort of religious diversity, but his point, I think, has to do with how as generations pass the mantle, the level of religious intensity wanes.  Whereas the religion at first stood against many of the cultural values and norms, as time passes, the religion accommodates those same norms and values.  If the leadership is well paid and "seldom depart for other careers", the religious intensity drops further.

There is no doubt in my mind that Christianity in the west has made such cultural accommodations, and I will not even delve into the theological battles between progressive and conservative Christianity.  That tiresome war will never cease.

What I would like to share is a personal observation rooted and grounded in congregational experience.

I have served long enough in my current setting to see three generations of Christian families worship.  That is somewhat of a rarity in these days of massive mobility and families being scattered to the four winds.  So, what do I see?

The oldest generation is entering their twilight, but when I first arrived, many were still vibrant and able to get out easily.  You could count on them being at worship and church events like clockwork.  Rarely did they miss any event.  Their involvement and faith life was intense, to say the least.

The next generation--a bit less intense.  Instead of regular, weekly worship, church attendance has lessened to two to three times a month.  Sometimes, especially during seasons of harvest (or hunting) attendance is less.  This group is less apt to attend certain church functions, and attendance at Bible study is extremely rare.  Church is an option among many options, and the other options win at an alarming rate.

The third generation--second removed from the first--is the least intense of all.  Church is actually more of a nuisance than anything.  It is one more thing in a long laundry list of activities that one can be involved in, and it is the least fun of them all.  Character building and entertainment can all be wrapped up in weekend sports.  God can be worshiped in a deer stand or on the lake.  Verbal commitments to attend activities are broken without a second thought.  This does not mean this generation is not moral or concerned with dealing with a broken world--far from that.  In fact, many are working hard to help others and make a difference, but they don't see how being actively involved in a congregation helps with this process.

These are broad generalizations.  There are exceptions to the rule, and for that I am thankful.  In fact, I have several congregation members who have traveled in the quite the opposite direction.  Their parents and previous generations have not been active in the church and had no religious intensity what-so-ever.  Their involvement is light-years ahead of previous generations; however, many of these folks are still caught up in the busy-ness of our current society.  They want religious intensity and involvement in the church community, but it is a struggle.  I am greatly thankful that these folks are dedicated to that struggle.

As I ponder these things, I wonder just what can be done to reverse such a thing?  Does this have to be the natural progression of things?  Does religious intensity have to decline?

I don't think it does.  I think the faith can be passed down, but it is a much more difficult job. Somehow the head and heart must be captivated; captured; by the radical love of God.

Simply finger pointing and telling people to do good things or get their act together isn't going to do it. (Witness the contempt many in society have toward churches who do just this.)

Just telling everyone God loves you just the way you are isn't going to do it. (Witness the rapid decline of denominations who use this as their central proclamation.)

Somehow, I think we must find a way to do as Tim Keller said in a lecture I watched numerous times.  "You've got to drill down with the truth, and then put the dynamite in.  Then, you've got explosive transformation."

And that's a lot of work.

1 comment:

ACB70 said...

great blog....as always