The End of Church? Physical Barriers to Oneness Eroding

Will church transform in American life?

Will church transform in American life?

Two separate and seemingly unrelated articles on religion from the Huffington Post newsletter in my inbox reinforced a conclusion I’ve been talking and writing about for a good many years. Namely, that my generation or, perhaps, the next, may well be the last in which the majority of people in the United States attended church with any regularity.

This would represent a change of monumental proportion. It would impact literally every aspect of our society and culture. Particularly if, in the process, the widely accepted sanctity of Sunday as a day of rest and worship were to get finally dismissed, as it has been about to do for the last several decades, the shifts involved could be literally felt everywhere.

The first article from HuffPo to reinforce this idea was a seemingly random collection of polling data on religiously related subjects. Among other things, this data reveals that fully 1/3 of Americans under the age of 35 today characterize themselves as “nones”, that is as religiously unaffiliated, making them the second-largest “group” of Americans when categorized by religious preference. Other relevant highlights:

  • The “importance” of religion has declined from 70% to 56% in the past 50 or more years.
  • Self-described church membership is off by 10% (70-60) from the 50’s and 60’s.
  • About 40% of American adults are members of different faith traditions than that of their parents. (This number is probably much higher if inter-Protestant breakdowns were recognized.)
  • Faith-sharing online is becoming commonplace with 61% of Millennials reporting they have seen someone share their faith over the Net.

The only statistic that appears to contradict this trend of fragmenting and decentralization in the American religious experience is the vastly increased prevalence of the so-called “megachurch.” Pollsters define that term to mean, “those with a charismatic senior minister, an active social outreach ministry and at least 2,000 people attending every weekend.” These organizations now number at least 1,600, up from a mere handful in the 60’s.

The Pope and a “More Universal” Church

pope_francis_wavingThe other post that caused me to pause was about Pope Francis’ comments on his recently published mega-teaching on Love in which he said, among other things, that the Catholic Church must become less dogmatically rule-based and more willing and able to take many concerns on a case-by-case basis.

He tipped his hand to this position when, after the second of two conferences (synods) he called to discuss and debate the issues at the heart of his 260-page Apostolic Exhortation entitled “The Joy of Love,” he made the following distinctly undogmatic observation:

“What seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous — almost! — for a bishop from another … what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion.”

Near the beginning of the Exhortation itself, Pope Francis sets this new tone firmly in place:

“Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.”

It may be relevant — and it’s at least interesting in the context — to note that the word “catholic” had as its original meaning, “universal.” This latest document and his related comments appear to be attempts to bring his followers into a bigger tent and to attract new followers and members who have been put off by the church’s long history of dogmatism and rigid, ideological behavior.

So How Do These Connect?

Both of these developments seem to me to represent the breaking-down of borders and barriers between religions and between those of a religious persuasion and those of a more generally spiritual nature. If we are to have any chance of increasing the global awareness of the Truth of Oneness, we must expect to find ways to blur and eventually erase these distinctions, not necessarily in socio-political terms but in theocratic contexts. In other words, we need to ease the psychological barriers that currently hinder sincere desires to bridge those walls that come about because of the clear distinctions we tend to want to draw between, most famously and egregiously, various branches of Protestantism.

The doctrinal and credal differences among Protestant denominations are often so small when examined in the bright light of ecumenicalism that they disappear into insignificance if not invisibility. It appears that the American public in general and the Roman Catholic Church broadly may be being led in a direction that will shatter those barriers over the course of time.

One likely consequence of this path to Oneness is the emergence of new forms of worship that transcend brick-and-mortar places dedicated primarily or solely to the religious experience of followers. I don’t know what this looks like; perhaps we will see a return to the pattern of the first century CE when early followers of the Jesus branch of Judaism that later became Christianity met in peoples’ homes. Perhaps virtual gatherings will replace some or all of today’s physical meetings. I can see a combination of those two providing an easily-followed pattern for future “gatherings of the Saints”.

Regardless of the impact on church-going and the existence of churches, I must say that as a Oneness believer and teacher, I am overjoyed at these developments and others like them and welcome them with open arms!


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