‘Reorganized Religion’ Looks to Future of the Church
Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters
Click here to read more about the book or to place an order from Worthy Publishing.
By LORETTA FULTON
It’s no secret that the church that many Americans grew up with is disappearing.
White steepled churches still exist but many are empty or close to empty on Sunday mornings. Is that a cause for concern or an opportunity?
Bob Smietana, a national reporter for Religion News Service whose stories have been featured in the Washington Post, USA Today and many other publications, has a new book on that topic, Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters.
On Thursday, Aug. 11, Religion News Service hosted a webinar with Smietana and several panelists to discuss the book.
“It’s not that one thing after another is changing,” Smietana said during the webinar. “It’s that everything is changing at the same time and people don’t know how to keep up.”
A description of the book furnished by Worthy Publishing explains the “why it matters” part of the title.
“Reorganized Religion is an in-depth and critical look at why people are leaving American churches and what we lose as a society as it continues,” the book promo says.
As the institutional church continues to dwindle in size, it loses its ability to provide services that churches are known for, such as food pantries, homeless shelters, and financial assistance for rent, utilities, and transportation.
“What really bothers me,” Smietana said, “it’s disintegrating and we’re not paying attention.”
Other webinar panelists included Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Phil Vischer of Big Idea Productions, Jellyfish Labs, and VeggieTales, and Jemar Tisby, a New York Times bestselling author, national speaker, and public historian. Adelle Banks, RNS national reporter and production editor, served as moderator.
In his book, Smietana looks at the future of organized religion in America and outlines options facing faith groups–Will they retreat? Will they become irrelevant? Or will they find a new path forward?
“What people do now will affect generations to come,” he said.
A problem that exists in churches today, panelist Phil Vischer said, is that people are finding new reasons to divide that have nothing to do with theology. Instead, culture wars have become today’s line in the sand. That not only affects today’s church but the future church as well.
Future generations will find it embarrassing that today’s churches are fighting over cultural issues, Vischer said, and that is concerning.
“That’s a really disturbing place,” he said.
He cited a church that increased its size by 1000 percent after the minister started preaching right-wing politics from the pulpit. A new building had to be added to keep up with growth.
“We’re rewarding pastors for confirming our beliefs,” Vischer said, while punishing those who don’t.
Another concern is the mix of race and religion. Panelist Jemar Tisby, who is Black, noted that many people have lost confidence in the institutional church. Congregations are great at providing outreach ministries, he said, but they aren’t good at fostering systemic, transformational change.
Major racial incidents over the past few years, coupled with evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump, have caused many Blacks to leave white churches. Race needs to be talked about when discussing the decline of the church, Tisby said.
“Let’s not skirt that issue,” he said.
Scott Thumma, of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, noted that 30 to 40 percent of all U.S. congregations are predicted to close in the next 20 years. The average congregation size today is 65 members, which isn’t big enough to sustain major outreach programs.
The downsizing of churches isn’t all bad, Thumma said. Some smaller churches need to close or merge with others. Perhaps their property could be taken over by a nonprofit that serves the community.
“It will be a loss,” Thumma said, “but in some sense there is a pruning that absolutely must happen.”
Loretta Fulton is editor of Spirit of Abilene
The past seven years have taught me so much about my perceptions of “church people.” Many of those church people oppose other church people. It’s getting harder to fellowship because political ideologies have entered the church and alienated some of us from others. I fear the church as we have known it is going through its own climate change.