I Believe in a High Demand Religion, Not a High Stakes Religion
Churches seem to be losing members for a whole host of reasons. I don’t have my finger on all the reasons why. I’m sure every individual who stops regular church attendance has their own personal reasons. I don’t believe, however, the way to keep members active in the church is by scaring them into staying. It doesn’t resonate and is not backed up by empirical evidence. A person’s life will not completely fall apart when they transition out of organized religion. There are plenty of people within church whose lives completely fall apart while maintaining active participation.
I simply don’t believe in a sad heaven. I believe that loving relationships will continue into the next life regardless of faithful attendance. I believe in a God that loves all of humanity that will work with us in our language, within our culture and through our institutions. I believe in a church of God that spans institutional boundaries. I believe that we are saved by grace, that grace requires our active reception of it, but does not require literal beliefs in specific dogmas. There’s a way to think about grace that transcends Christianity. Grace is a core part of all healthy religious institutions. Grace is a part of all healthy institutions, secular and religious. Thriving businesses offer grace-filled working conditions. Academic studies find that forgiveness and gratitude are key components to mental health. Christianity believes grace was activated by Christ’s atoning sacrifice. But mouthing a belief in Jesus is not how we enable that grace in our lives.
Additionally, I believe that churches should be concerned with falling membership but not too concerned.
Matthew 16:25 reads
I believe this verse applies to churches as much as people. Churches that think too much about church end up dying. To thrive, churches care most about how to help and encourage their members to lose their lives in the service of others. In this sense, I believe in a high demand religion – that we should be called into total consecration, intertwining our lives into helping our communities, societies and individuals thrive. But I don’t believe in a high stakes religion. No single religious institution has a monopoly on grace. High demand, but not high stakes.
There Are High Stakes in Life – We Need to Try Harder to Reduce Them
Leaving the church should not be considered a high stake catastrophe. I know people who have left my faith and found a thriving, healthy spiritual journey that has led them into a life of love and service. Our relationships should and must withstand these sorts of transitions. We should love, care and learn from others both within and without church, maybe even especially those who are critical. We should allow ourselves to be called into church service, called out of church service, called into the church and called out of the church.
But it doesn’t mean there aren’t high stake decisions in life. There are. Religious institutions can provide structure and protection here. Too many people die far too young. There are too many people living on the streets. Too much abuse of all kinds. Lives have been ruined by poor choices. Our societal institutions should do a better job trying to alleviate poverty, suffering, addiction and abuse by providing better, more effective safety nets and a network of community support. Churches play an important role here.
Reducing high stakes means better mental health support, more access to addiction services, a justice system that’s more restorative and less purely punitive, a much more comprehensive safety net, better access to an educational system that is nurturing and works better for more people.
Let People Not Programs Complicate Our Lives
Churches need to impose more sacrifice for those with the means, talents and abilities that can really make a difference. A church’s core mission is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. Those with excess resources, talent and abilities should sacrifice some of their abundance in the service for those with greater needs. Talented people should get the necessary training to care for and serve others, both professionally where necessary but also in their spare time.
We need more counselors and case workers helping the most vulnerable. Those with extra money should donate that excess to ensure those who need support get it. Many more people should be trained in caring professions.
The poor, the mentally ill, those with the most challenges should complicate our lives. More of what we do should be about pulling more people into our sphere of influence and uplift.
Some Truths are More Important Than Other Truths
Endless apologetic attempts to defend typical religious truth claims completely miss the point about the purpose of religion. I don’t know nor do I much care about what literally did or did not happen with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The six day creation story seems so obviously allegorical I feel embarrassed to have ever thought there was something scientific about the way Genesis presents creationism. Jesus leaving the tomb at his resurrection is a mystery I’m not sure how to even attempt to solve.
I have faith in life after death, in the eternal nature of relationships and identity. I don’t care too much about the details. I don’t think literal belief in religious truth claims should be a determining factor in someone’s religious participation. Does my involvement in my weekly religious service lead me into love, care, grace and gratitude? Truths about how to purify my soul into more consistent and sincere acts of goodness, love and charity are fundamentally what matters.
I’m not sure what will keep religious institutions thriving into the future. What will be the ultimate factor in convincing my children to stay active in this church? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that I want my kids to be kind, loving, thriving adults making significant contributions in society where they feel loved, included and supported. I want that for everyone. If they can’t find that kind of love and support at church, I won’t blame them if they leave. I believe they can find it at church, but church’s need to make that their primary mission. Nothing else matters nearly as much.