A recent study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Life revealed that, for the first time in our history, more people in the United States claim no religious affiliation than those who do.
There now are more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6 percent of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation.
Why is that?
Overwhelmingly, the unaffiliated say they think religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics. For that, we — Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, you name it — all can take the blame. We are the church. If people are getting turned off by organized religion, we are the ones doing the turning. At least those of us who think our way is the only way. When I hear people ranting about prayer in schools, I wonder if they pray at home. When people demand the Ten Commandments be placed in government buildings, I wonder if those same people faithfully live the commandments.
Religion is under attack, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. Most of us don’t walk our religious talk, and it shows in a younger generation that seems to want no part of us for that reason.
While mulling these developments over, I have been involved in a work assignment with some outstanding Methodist ministers — male and female, black and white — from across North Georgia, sprinkled with an impressive array of lay people for good measure. A finer bunch you won’t find.
What we were doing was some important work for the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church regarding our next generation of leadership. I don’t need to go into a lot of detail, but I am honored to be a part of the group, and I think I got more out of the assignment than I put into it.
After I left the meetings, I understand better that the ministry is a calling — just like education, medicine and public safety. What makes these professions unique is that each touches some part of our lives. Ministry deals with the soul, medicine with the body, education with the mind and public safety with our whole being. Be half-hearted in any of the above, and you will fail miserably and hurt a lot of people in the process. You do these jobs because you are called to do it.
I learned a lot about what it takes to be a Methodist minister during my time with them. Even after two days of close contact, I still don’t know how they do it. Ministers are human beings like you and me, yet the expectations on them seem unreal at times. They see the very best and worst of us.
On Sunday, they have to keep us engaged during worship services, while they try to pound a bit of love and grace into our hard heads and be sure not to offend anyone in the process. When we leave the sanctuary, store our haloes and get back to business as usual, their work is just beginning. It could be anything from consoling the bereaved, to counseling the confused to uniting a pair of lovebirds, to feeding and clothing the poor to getting us off our duffs and out in the community to serve others, to listening to whiny members complain about hymn selection last week.
And their leaders don’t make it any easier. The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops was part of a letter to Congress — along with leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — accusing the Israeli government of human-rights violations. I don’t know much about the thought processes of the Council of Bishops, but I know a bit about politics. That letter won’t amount to a hill of beans.
Maybe that crowd didn’t get the memo about people being turned off by religious organizations that get involved in politics. Maybe they need to read the Pew Study again.
Mainline churches are experiencing membership losses. That is a fact. I can’t lay the problem at the feet of the good and decent ministers I have come to know and appreciate in my work with them. They are doing the best they can. The problem lies with the rest of us. After all, we are all the church. This is our fault.
Dick Yarbrough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Ga. 31139.