“As Maine goes, so goes the nation” was once a notion that held some weight in presidential election cycles, as Maine found itself to be a bellwether for the general sentiments of the nation as a whole. While the phrase may no longer be true in presidential elections, the phrase has found a new home in the world of religion. A recent Pew Research Center study shows the dramatic changing face of religion in America and, especially, the decline of mainline Protestant churches. The study found that “nones” are on the rise, with one in five American adults having no religious affiliation.
In Maine, we’ve been experiencing this trend for quite some time.
Whether we want to admit or not, many religious communities in Maine know all too well this reality. Churches wonder about their diminishing numbers and have experienced first-hand that Maine is the least religious state in the country (according to a census conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies released last spring). Mainline Protestants have been especially hard hit, as their numbers have steeply declined since their glory days in the 1950s.
For those who find spiritual meaning in organized religious institutions, the latest Pew Research study offers an unsettling picture of what is happening nationally, but is already well in place right here in Maine. In the last five years alone, the “unaffiliated” have increased from just over 15% to just under 20%. This group includes non-believers, but also a large number of people who are “nothing in particular.” And what is even more alarming is that in the “nothing in particular” category, a full 88% are not looking for a religion that would be right for them.
I witness this stark reality in Hallowell, where I serve the Congregational/United Church of Christ church. For the few visitors that come to worship looking for a spiritual home, almost every single one has a previous church connection. They have either recently moved here or they are looking for a change from the church they currently attend. It is extremely rare to have someone visit who is “seeking” for the first time, or for the first time in a long time.
As we face this situation, I find myself often reminding my congregation that we must keep the numbers in perspective. A full parking lot doesn’t necessarily signify that we are “doing it right.” What is critical is our faithfulness to the Gospel. But, numbers are significant to the bottom line, and our ability to do what we do in and through our staff and physical plant. Many in my congregation are not happy when I begin talking about making changes. And, to be honest, I don’t like it myself. I was one of those weird kids growing up in the seventies who liked to go to church.
“As Maine goes, so goes the nation,” is all too true, though, when it comes to the Church. Mainline churches must change in order to continue to witness to the life, hope and love of Jesus Christ. If we simply decide to stick to how “we’ve always done things”—which usually means doing things as we’ve done them since the fifties—these churches will not survive.
For good or for bad, we in Maine are either trendsetters, or bellwethers. Either way, many of us face an uncomfortable truth about our churches and the way of our faith—we either must conscientiously try to turn the tide or prepare for our inevitable demise.
We ought to take heart, though, in the knowledge that the Church, throughout its existence, has faced significant challenges and good people of faith have weathered those challenges. If our faith truly means something important to us, we should embrace the challenges that we face, and set our churches on a course that truly witnesses to the love of God in these days.
Our call is to bear witness to the transformational love of Christ and the only way to offer that message is to live it, and to allow the Spirit to transform us. In so doing, perhaps a few “nones” will join us and a whole new trend will find its way to expression.