The Future of Faith and the rise of the “nones:” YDS guests and students reflect

By Kelsey Dallas '14 M.A.R.

With one in five American adults now identifying their religious affiliation as “none,” empty pews and fewer pulpits have YDS students and alumni wondering where former church members are going—and if they will ever come back.

In response, YDS hosted “The Future of Faith,” a two-part discussion about where the church is headed in the next few decades. In his opening remarks Dean Gregory Sterling charted this religious decline through grim statistics, concluding that “committed Christians” should “stop and think very seriously about what’s taking place in our country religiously—and how do we address this?”

The April 25 discussion engaged two prominent figures with similar assessments of America’s religious climate but varied ideas about how the church should respond: author and scholar Diana Butler Bass and New York Times Op-Ed columnist Ross Douthat.

Diana Butler Bass holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University and writes widely about American religion and culture for national and religious media including NPR, Time, and Newsweek, as well as Sojourners and Christian Century. Bass converted to the Episcopal Church as an adult and her most recent book is Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (HarperOne, 2012).

Ross Douthat, a convert to Catholicism and a native of New Haven, began writing as a columnist for the New York Times after serving as a senior editor at The Atlantic. Douthat is the author of several books, including most recently Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012). Douthat is also a film critic for the National Review.

Bob Abernethy, host and executive editor of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, moderated the first segment of the discussion, asking Bass and Douthat to explain “how we all got into this mess.” The second half of the debate focused on the impact of broad changes for local congregations and was moderated by Lillian Daniel ’93 M.Div., senior pastor at First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, IL and author of several books, including When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough (Jericho Books, 2013).

Asked by Abernethy to reflect on what they see happening in religious communities, both Bass and Douthat spoke about unsettling trends towards increased isolation in the contemporary world.

“I think the story of American religious culture right now is the same story of American culture writ large which is just a general deinstitutionalization,” noted Douthat, citing Robert Putnam’s 1995 essay “Bowling Alone.” “This isn’t just churches.”

Douthat worries that the next decade will witness even further individualization, as men and women become increasingly content to remain at home staring into computer screens. Yet, Douthat also emphasized that “the places that are most resilient” in American culture are places that “still have or have new forms of religious community.” He hopes these “pockets” of religious activity will expand in the future.

Bass responded that it isn’t the isolation of individuals that should be troubling but, instead, the seclusion of certain breakaway groups that mirrors political polarization.

“I fear that our public life will be more deeply shaped by these broken-away, disconnected kinds of communities where their own theology reigns and they have no engagement with anyone else’s worldview,” said Bass. “I hope that whatever new communities that we form will connect people across the boundaries that divide, rather than serve the isolation of the communal division we currently have.”

YDS student Elaine Ellis Thomas ’13 M.Div. agreed that people are less likely to seek meaningful community through churches in our contemporary context, but suggested that this was not simply the result of “general deinstitutionalization.” Rather, it stems from a genuine failure of the church to offer a compelling alternative to individualism.

“There may be some truth in the statement that individualism is causing people to leave the church. If a church’s offerings don’t meet my needs, I’ll find someplace else that does,” explained Thomas. “But I think a deeper issue is that people are not finding places that accomplish more than meeting superficial needs, places where they can confront the big questions of life and death and meaning—places that draw them out of themselves and into real community. Jesus’ first act of ministry was to gather a community around him, so the idea that one can be a follower of Jesus without community completely misses the mark.”

Asked to consider why young people are particularly apt to separate from traditional church communities, Douthat speculated that this trend might be related to unresolved issues of the sexual revolution in the 1970s. According to him, churches continue to struggle to address the needs of men and women in their twenties and thirties.

“If you are a single person in your twenties in the United States of America today, on the one hand the idea of living up to the sort of traditional Christian view of chastity before marriage and so on seems almost impossibly difficult,” said Douthat. “But then on the other hand I think the struggle of a lot of more progressive-minded churches is if you downplay or sort of jettison that message then it seems like you’re not taking the Christian religion seriously.”

Bass, however, explained that our culture is failing to acknowledge the variety of accessible theological work being done today. She highlighted the way that younger adults are expressing interest in figures like Jay Bakker and Rob Bell, but struggle to find the point behind all the work being done. Christianity may be taking steps toward a clearer moral vision, but the message is being distorted before it reaches the public.

“We’ve got a lot of amazing theology happening…but we just don’t have the delivery system of the old establishment culture,” Bass explained.

“A lot of younger adults…want to engage in theological conversations, but there’s not a lot of natural avenues of connection to have theology move in and through younger adult generations.”

Justin Hawkins ’14 M.A.R. admits that he is skeptical about the role public theology might play in the future.

“Bass’s analysis that our culture is failing to incorporate current theological work may actually be a symptom of the larger problem identified by Douthat,” said Hawkins, affirming both speakers’ sense that institutional faith is failing to meet younger adults on their own terms.

He continued, “Young Americans are rejecting moral authorities and this general suspicion of religion leads to a decreased respect for what churches have to offer.”

Both Bass and Douthat suggested that churches might be able to bring people back to the pews by better advertising what membership means.

Referencing a marketing study, Bass spoke about the danger of turning people off to church membership by overwhelming them with a confusing array of denominational options. She asks churches to consider whether they are being clear about what their community has to offer.

“We have to figure out how to get the attention of a world that’s sort of walking by,” she noted, adding, “There really needs to be a compelling story that congregations can tell about their encounter with God, how they serve their neighbors, who Jesus is, and, in telling that story, inviting other people into the narrative.”

Douthat agreed with her assessment, but emphasized the role of denominational brand identity in the modern world.

“In the end, it is a clarity about what you believe, not on every issue but on fundamental issues, that is an essential aspect of successful religion,” he said.

Corinne Ellis ’14 M.Div. agreed that churches should engage in serious self-evaluation, but questions whether “too many options” accurately explains the current decline in church membership.

“For my friends who are ‘nones,’ it isn’t that there are too many options, but that each option seems to be offering a similar kind of experience that isn’t doing much for them,” said Ellis, “A move by the church writ large to define identity and re-brand would be helpful, as I think most church communities offer more than most people expect. But perhaps churches also have a ways to go in making themselves truly relevant—and I don’t mean PowerPoint presentations and singles mixers.”

Noting that the trend of declining church membership shows no sign of ending, Dean Sterling expressed his hope that Yale Divinity School will continue to host valuable debates.

“YDS should be a forum for discussion about Christianity in the U.S. and globally. Today’s debate is a down payment in the process,” he said.

Join the conversation! An archived recording of the event’s live stream is available online.

Date Posted: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 - 10:51am