Holy Disorientation August 23, 2010Posted by Dan R. Dick in Church Leadership, Congregational Life, Religion in the U.S., Research, Spiritual Trends.
Tags: Christian Community, Church Leadership, Religious Trends, Vision
The root of the word “orientation” comes from the idea of using the rising sun — the east — as a reference point to stay on course. We” orient,” then as the day passes into night, we become “dis-oriented,” until the sun reappears and we can “re-orient” ourselves. A sublime and simple process — that will preach, by the way (just don’t get too cute substituting Son for sun…). This comes to mind because I just unearthed a folder of congregational profiles that I was working on two summers ago, just before I was let go by the General Board of Discipleship. The study intended to determine where our United Methodist congregations are aligning their energy and resources. It wasn’t intended to judge or imply value, but to merely describe and better understand the orientation of our current reality.
The survey involved selecting one preference from 60 forced choice pairs. For example, “If you could only do one of the following in each pair, which would you choose? — A fellowship supper or a Bible study. Attend worship or go on a mission trip. Sharing my faith with a non-Christian or visiting a church member. Working at a soup kitchen or my church rummage sale. Attend worship or a Bible study. Visit a sick church member or visit inmates in prison.” Then a weighted average of the overall scores were plotted on a chart indicating four orientations: inward focus on our church, inward focus on relationship with God, outward focus on our church, and outward focus on relationship with God.
Who Needs a Sermon? January 18, 2010Posted by Dan R. Dick in Communication in the Church, Research, Seeker spirituality, worship.
Tags: Christian worship, Preaching, spiritual practices, worship
It never fails that when I am looking for something in particular, I manage to find something else I was looking for months ago. Such is the case with interview notes I took in Colorado, Iowa, and Connecticut with 20-60 year old spiritual seekers. These notes have been the missing piece in a puzzle that has frustrated me for the past three years. They were part of the larger Seeker Study I did for the General Board of Discipleship, and they highlighted some interesting perspectives on preaching and proclamation. These interviews — 71 in all asked non-church-affiliated Christian spiritual seekers to share their thoughts on the art of the sermon. Two-thirds of the 71 interviews (48) were with women, and approximately the same percentage were Caucasian. Twelve were of African-American, six of Korean, two of Puerto Rican, one of Japanese, and two of mixed ethnic heritage. While this may not be overly important, there were some gender and racial/ethnic differences in responses — those these are correlative, not necessarily causative. We discussed five questions:
- what is a sermon?
- what is a sermon for?
- what is the preacher’s role in preaching?
- what do you look for/desire/need from a sermon?
- what types of sermons speak to you in meaningful and/or transformative ways?
Number Dumber January 2, 2010Posted by Dan R. Dick in Critical Thinking, Religion in the U.S., Research.
Tags: Church growth, Religious Trends
I listened to a Christian commentator rant about the moral decay of the nation and how Christianity “has lost its hold” on our country. He was basing his rant on a report from the Gallup organization that indicates “only” 78% of Americans identify with some form of Christianity this Christmas. He emphatically reminded us that 60 years ago 9-out-of-10 Americans were “good” Christians (as opposed to the 8-out-of-10 so-so Christians today…), and that “devil-worshipping liberals” (like me) were “killing Christmas.” He neglected to report that Gallup also indicates that 93% of Americans celebrate Christmas, even if they don’t call themselves “religious.”
But do these numbers tell us important information or do they mislead and misrepresent? I’ll let you decide, but here are some things to think about:
- in 1948, the U.S. population was approximately 146,500,000. 92% = 134,780,000 Christians celebrating Christmas. The current population in the U.S. is approximately 308,4oo,000. 78% = 240,552,000 Christians celebrating Christmas (286,812,000 Americans celebrating Christmas).
- Gallup reports that 13% of Americans claim “no religious identity.” This category needs some further exploration and unpacking. When the General Board of Discipleship engaged in its Spiritual Seeker Study, we discovered a significant shift occurring that has implications for this statistic. 75% of the people we surveyed who believe in God and Jesus Christ claimed they “subscribe to no religion.” They were part of the cultural segment who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” The category “religious belief” is becoming archaic and less helpful. Comparing someone with “no religious identity” in 1948 — or even 1978 — with someone claiming the same thing in 2009 may be comparing apples to oranges.
- Cultural, societal, and generational mores have changed — my grandfather attended church every week, considered himself religious, and gave a tithe of his income to his church. He also swore like a sailor, made fun of most of the people he went to church with, never read the Bible or prayed, and thought Sunday school was for sissies and momma’s boys. There is almost no way to adjust statistics for honesty or integrity. Church attendance is no great indicator of behavior. I remember an eye-opening interview I did with a woman’s shelter director in Tennessee. She told me that the vast majority of abused women she counseled came out of “good Christian homes” where the husbands were active at church. We need to be careful the assumptions we make when we here someone is “religious” or attends church regularly.
- Why fixate on the 10-15% we don’t have? Eight-out-of-ten Americans claim some form of Christian faith!! 80%!!! We celebrate the church from the Book of Acts — a church that represented 4-6% of the total population in its healthiest locations! What is our problem? If we could get the 80% who say they believe to act like it, we could make this old world a much better place to live.
Christianity in the United States is 400+ years old. The current cultural and educational diversity of this country is a few decades old. The decline of the old in the face of the new is a given — it is just what happens; always has — always will. In my mind, we should marvel that the statistics aren’t a lot worse. Were we honest in our responses and measurement, the number and percentage of “Christians” would be much smaller than it appears — but we have no objective, fair, unbiased metrics by which to judge. The numbers we have aren’t doing us any favors. They make us feel bad, anxious, uncertain, discouraged, and they force us to may uncritical and short-sighted decisions. Let’s focus on what we do have and what we can do with what we’ve got. That makes a lot more sense to me than panicking over problems that may really not exist.
What often gets lost when we play with statistics is that they represent something — in this case, real people. It would be wonderful if we could stop treating people like statistics and start treating statistics like people. It doesn’t matter how many more or less we have today than yesterday. If we are building good, healthy, strong relationships with everyone we have today, we will reach more and more tomorrow. But we won’t reach them because they are our “target demographic.” We will reach them because they are people, worthy of our time, energy, effort, and respect.
Do You Believe In Magic? December 16, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Critical Thinking, Religion in the U.S., Research, Spiritual Trends.
Tags: Myths, Religious Trends
In the not too distant past I sat listening to a United Methodist clergyperson talk about the gifts of the Spirit — a topic in which I have great interest and long involvement. I truly believe that we are imbued with gifts that transcend mere ability or interest. These gifts enable us to serve others as the body of Christ. They are a part of the unique matrix that comprise each individual, and their potential for good is maximized in concert — when gifts are joined, synergy results. However, I was on a very different wavelength than the woman who was speaking. Breathlessly, she explained that once we “unwrap” our gift, we “unleash Holy energy” that allows us to “perform miracles.” We cease to be “merely human” and connect to our “divine nature.” She said that the first proof of our spiritual giftedness is tongues — every person born in the Spirit can speak in tongues — and that this is evidence that we have connected to the mind of Christ. His knowledge is SO great that we cannot comprehend it, thus we speak what sounds like gibberish. From there, God will bestow on us one of thousands of possible “gifts of power,” — among these she named levitation, speaking with the dead, the ability to shape time, the ability to attract wealth, and the ability to become invisible. Of course, these last few things are only possible for the most devout and blessed. What this woman was sharing has little to nothing to do with spiritual gifts as described in the early church, but is her reading so surprising?
According to the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report — Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths – this pastor is not alone. A rising tide of Americans integrate Eastern, New Age (rhymes with “sewage”?), and occult beliefs into orthodox faith systems. A large (and growing) number of Christians believe in reincarnation, ghosts, supernatural experiences, astrology, psychics, and unexplained things that go bump in the night. While Pew doesn’t go much into the phenomenon, culturally we are enamored of vampires, warlocks, demons, and the Apocalypse. You cannot turn on the television without a supernatural viewing option. Between Harry Potter and the Twilight series, magic and monsters have dominated the best seller lists for a decade — and Stephen King has dominated for over 30 years. We eat this stuff up, but do we really believe it?
Tags: Church Leadership, Church membership, Religious Trends
We’re old. We’re dying. We’re decaying. We’re declining. We’re ineffective. We’re irrelevant. Doesn’t that motivate you to do better? Come on, be honest. Don’t such messages just fill you with energy, vigor, passion and hope? Sure they do, otherwise why would we dwell so constantly upon them? Why waste time envisioning ourselves as God is calling us to be when we can wallow in all the things we aren’t? Doom-and-gloomers eat this stuff up. The United Methodist Church will be gone in 40 years. The average age of United Methodists is 104. We’re closing 24,000 churches every year. It’s like crack. Once we taste the bad news, we simply can’t get enough of it.
I hate the misuse of statistics, but I have to admit it’s very easy to do. All you have to do is count something, frame it in a specific way, twist it 45 degrees, take it completely out of context and pretend it is the only thing that matters, and then present it as “fact.” It’s fun, and anyone can do it. Plus, once the results are published there is the added joy of all the many ways the findings can be misinterpreted, misunderstood, and miscommunicated. Nothing irks me more than someone who knows better delivering sincere misinformation as insightful and true. I attended a domestic violence workshop once where the “expert” claimed that in the 90 minutes we had been together, “31,000 children were victims of abuse in the United States.” Now, do the math — this is over 340 children a minute, 489,000 a day, 14,688,000 a month — every child in the U.S. is abused no less than twice a year. Yikes, what a terrible childhood we suffer in these United States.
The Latest Pewhaha: Faith in Flux May 3, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Congregational Life, Critical Thinking, Research, Spiritual Trends.
Tags: Religious Trends, Spiritual seekers
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Like everything else in popular media, sensation sells when it comes to religion in the United States. And also like the popular media, the product shared with the public is shaped to “make news.” Good thing? Bad thing? Doesn’t really matter. What matters is, how do we cut through all the fluff to know what’s really going on? Offering a variation on the old X-Files theme: “The truth is in there.” It just takes a little work to find it. Take the new Pew report, Faith in Flux, for example.
People are joining and leaving churches at a prodigious rate. There are more church-goers today than 10 years ago, but it represents a smaller percentage of the population. There is the seemingly contradictory fact that there are both more believers and more non-believers than ever before. Religious people are disappearing, while spiritual people proliferate. A superficial analysis makes church leaders feel like we’re losing ground — and in the case of a particular denomination (like The UMC), we might be — when in fact there are more actively engaged Christian seekers/believers than ever before. We have changed the way we define members and participants so often in the past thirty years that it is all but meaningless to compare 21st century stats to anything in the 20th century. Also, the way we count has changed even more often. Larger churches estimate (probably a lot of smaller churches do, as well) attendance, and even in churches that take an actual count, the numbers quoted by pastors, ushers, and “official” counters often vary greatly within a single congregation. (I attended services three different times in one of our “hot” churches. I counted an average of 1,100, the usher reported attendance to be 1,250, the pastor stated 1,500, and the reported average “on the books” for the year was 1,600 per week. Reviewing video records of two dozen services, however, indicated an average 0f 1,171. Which is the “official” stat? Yep, that’s a problem…)
Broken for You… But Definitely Broken March 22, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Congregational Life, Research, The United Methodist Church.
Tags: means of grace, spiritual practices
You might think that people who do something repeatedly over a period of years would come to know its practice and meaning intimately. In the case of the celebration of Holy Communion, you would be wrong. Each month (the preferred schedule for the institution of the Lord’s Supper in United Methodism) millions of worshipers in our congregations participate in one of the two seminal sacraments of our faith. But what exactly does this “holy mystery” mean to those who partake? For most, apparently, it remains a mystery.
From December 2005 through July 2006, 1,200 United Methodists (200 clergy, 1,000 laity) were surveyed to better understand the perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and understanding held by those who celebrate communion. 961 surveys were completed (163 clergy, 798 laity) and a series of phone interviews followed with 95 pastors and 247 lay people from the survey sample. What follows is a brief summary of our findings and a series of questions yet to be explored.
Faith By Numbers March 11, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Critical Thinking, Religion in the U.S., Research.
Tags: Church Leadership, Church membership
When I was a kid, I used to love paint-by-number sets. Paint-by-number was the perfect solution for someone like me with absolutely no artistic ability whatsoever. There was a picture presented in ink outline and in each section of the outline was a number that corresponded to a color paint. Faithfully following the number should have resulted in a passable replica of the original, except for one thing: there was never the right amount of paint. See, there was an identical amount of a dozen different colors of paint, but each picture required colors in different quantities. A forest picture would rip through the green, but leave enought red to paint a fire truck. A ship at sea would exhaust all the green, brown and blue, but leave enough pink and yellow to add a flock of flamingos. There was a fundamental flaw in the design — picture by picture, all colors are not equal. The same rule applies to the church. When analyzing shifts and trends in congregational dynamics, a percent is not just a percent, because not all percents are equal. Stay with me and this will all become clear.
Not Peace, But a Sword March 10, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Congregational Life, Research.
Tags: Church membership
Next week I want to publish an article on bad behavior in congregations, but I thought it would be interesting to get your views in advance. Take a moment to answer this question:
Smoke & Mirrors: How To Make the “Religious” Disappear March 9, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Critical Thinking, Religion in the U.S., Research, Spiritual Trends.
Tags: Religious Trends, Spiritual seekers
The recent report from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) is making the news: fewer and fewer Americans “got religion.” Over the past two decades, the number of people identifying themselves as having “no religion” climbed from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. There are slightly more atheists, a few more agnostics, a slowly growing segment of non-denominational Christian believers, while Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Jewish populations continue to decline as a percentage of the U.S. population. All of this is accurate, as far as it goes, but it is easy to draw some hasty — and fundamentally wrong — conclusions from this data.