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Diana Butler Bass
Religion historian and author Diana Butler Bass
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The Terrible Decade
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DBB Part 1
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DBB Part 2
DALLAS – Noted religion historian Diana Butler Bass says she spent nearly two years saturated in the same kind of depressing statistics that now confront The United Methodist Church. Indeed, she told her audiences at 2012 Ministers' Week event at Perkins School of Theology, the rate and magnitude of decline among Christian denominations in the first decade of the 21st century proved so oppressive that they nearly robbed her of her nickname, "the Mainline Church Hope Lady."
Then the author of such popular books as Christianity for the Rest of Us and A People's History of Christianity discovered that the turmoil facing the UMC and its sister denominations might not be the "death tsunami" claimed by some. Instead, says Dr. Butler Bass, she found evidence that the decline may actually fertilize a fourth "great awakening" in American religion.
Out of that realization, Dr. Butler Bass crafted her latest book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (HarperOne),scheduled for release Feb. 14. She based her two lectures for Ministers' Week on her findings, and gave United Methodist Insight permission to quote from her presentations for the benefit of General Conference decision-makers.
Four major religion shocks
Dr. Butler Bass told participants at the Perkins event that despite the hopeful outlook for religion at the beginning of the 21st century, all Christian denominations, with four exceptions, had declined precipitously since 2000. The only denominations that have shown numerical growth are the Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), Jehovah's Witnesses, and two small Pentecostal denominations. All other Christian churches, including such prominently evangelical denominations as the Southern Baptist Convention, have declined in both membership and resources.
The author said she traces this universal decline to four major events that have tainted public perception of religion in America:
- The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, in which religion fueled violence on many sides;
- The 2002 child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, in which "the worst scandal of the church in 700 years" showed institutional religion abused the most vulnerable;
- The 2003 election of an openly gay, partnered cleric, the Rev. Gene Robinson, as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, in which religious adherents were shown to be mean-spirited;
- The 2004 presidential election, in which George W. Bush, the candidate with the lowest approval rating of any sitting president, was re-elected by an evangelical Christian bloc of whom 87 percent voted for Bush.
"Evangelicals won the 2004 election, but they lost their souls and their children," Dr. Butler Bass said. "Religion became identified with a particular political agenda. Evangelicals under the age of 40 now radically disagree with their parents on all issues except abortion."
Against this backdrop, however, a strange thing happened, the historian continued. Surveys showed that people who had considered themselves "spiritual but not religious" or "religious but not spiritual" both declined at similar rates in favor of a new category: "spiritual and religious."
"In other words, people were expressing that they hold in tension both hope about their faith in God and fear about the institutional church," Dr. Butler Bass said.
Gaining historical perspective
As she struggled to make sense of these findings, the historian said, she turned one day by seeming coincidence to a book she had used to write her doctoral dissertation: Revivals, Awakening and Reform by William G. McLoughlin (University of Chicago Press, 1978). In researching America's three great religious awakenings, McLoughlin discovered a social framework that Dr. Butler Bass says applies to the environment now facing The United Methodist Church and other Christian denominations.
This "pattern of awakening" as Dr. Butler Bass terms it, has five distinct stages that denominations must work through if they hope to adapt to the new spiritual environment. These stages are:
- Crisis of legitimacy, or "something is wrong."
- Cultural distortion, or institutional failure.
- New vision, including rise of "nativist" movements and scapegoating.
- Attraction, the rise of new political parties especially among young people.
- Transformation of institutions and society.
Most denominations currently are in stages one or two, and they skip to the final stage of transformation at their peril, said Dr. Butler Bass. "Institutional, social and political change follow spiritual awakenings, they do not create them," she said.
What changes in these transformations are a sense of identity, the adoption of practices that shape daily life and offer meaning, and new beliefs about God and the world, Dr. Butler Bass said.
"It's all about the journey," the historian said. "We're right in the middle of it, what I call the First Great Global Awakening. All over the planet, people are rising up to try to find God in ways that will heal the world. Some of those who want to connect with the divine or transcendence don't even use the word 'God' anymore."
What Can We Do About It?
In her second lecture, Dr. Butler Bass likened the current religious environment in America to Holy Saturday, the waiting period between Jesus' Crucifixion on Good Friday and Resurrection on Easter.
"Right now we have two dominant and equally strong narratives at work in society," the historian said. "On the one hand, there's bright optimism, but there's also fear of the future because of declines in finances and members, with wearied congregations, decaying buildings and unresponsive denominational structures.
"What do we do when the old stuff is falling away and the new is not here yet?"
Dr. Butler Bass said she thinks that new vision for American churches must come from collaborative efforts at the grassroots level, not from visionary individuals or from denominational leadership. In other words, "new vision isn't centralized," she said.
Together with her colleague, Dr. Robert P. Jones, at Public Religion Research, Dr. Butler Bass said she found changes in faith language that reflect how people are tempering their "religiousness" with more references to spirituality. After reviewing results of both her personal surveys and 30 years of academic research, the historian said she discerned two new definitions for the words "religion" and "spirituality."
- Religion: An institution that has organized matters pertinent to beliefs and derives authority from external sources.
- Spirituality: An experience that connects one with a deeper sense of self and the divine, validated through internal sources.
"Where do we spend most of our time as churches, in worship services, ministries and traditions?" Dr. Butler Bass asked her Ministers' Week audience. "How are we providing connections of meaning and [spiritual] experience? Can we make it clear we do both?"
The historian noted that the 10 congregations she studied for her previous book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, practice both spirituality and religion in the forms of "believing, behaving and belonging" (see accompanying charts).
"Typically most church websites start with 'what we believe,' 'who we are,' and 'how we do it,' but nobody cares about these questions anymore," Dr. Butler Bass said. " The dream is connection, relationship, community. We're moving from religious institution to spiritual experience."