A recent NBC News and Wall Street Journal survey has found that one in five Americans say that religion does not play an important role in their lives—the highest percentage since the poll began asking participants about their focus on faith in 1997.
This is not news in Central Maine. I’ve been aware of the decline in the significance of religion for quite some time. I can even place a date on my personal epiphany that faith and religion are no longer significantly important to a great number of Americans, even those who go to church.
The date: September 11, 2001. Or, to be more accurate, it was in the days after that horrible day. At the time, I was Acting Pastor and Teacher at Winslow Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Winslow, Maine. I had been serving there as Minister of Christian Education for a couple of years. During the month of September 2001, though, I was the only minister on staff. The long-time settled pastor had retired during the summer, and the interim was not due to start until October 1. So, I was the pastor during that time when one of the most significant events in all of American history took place.
In the days following September 11, quite a few of my friends, who do not go to church, commented to me something along the lines of, “I bet church attendance is way up.” But, church attendance in the weeks following September 11, 2001 was not “way up.” In fact, it hardly went up at all.
And then there was the actual day itself. Not long after I had begun processing what was going on in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania, I decided to pull together a church service for that evening. I called a few retired deacons, who I thought might be home, to ask for help in spreading the news that we were going to gather that evening at church. The first deacon I called apologized that she couldn’t help me. She had plans to meet a friend for lunch, she mentioned casually. I asked her if she had seen the news about what was happening. Oh yes, she told me. She had seen the news. But, it was clear that she hadn’t even thought about changing her plans. She didn’t think she would be at the service either. It just wasn’t going to fit into her schedule.
The service that night was fairly well attended, but attendance at Sunday services remained mostly the same as before September 11. I remember noticing this and wondering about what it meant. Now, these many years later, I have a better sense of what it did mean: the unsettling truth that religion is just not that important to people. Even people who are part of churches.
Back in 2001, I noticed that the lack of a rise in worship attendance had two components: 1) There was no real discernable uptick in the number of unfamiliar faces in worship (visitors), and 2) There was no real discernable uptick in the attendance of those who were associated with the church (the Christmas and Easter people).
That more people say that religion is not important in their lives, or less important in their lives, is not news to me. But, I do wonder about how that happened. What happened in the last couple of decades of the twentieth century that made religion increasingly insignificant?
This shift happened in an almost indiscernible way. Even my religiously unaffiliated friends who shared their assumption that national tragedy somehow equaled increased worship attendance, not only did not go to church themselves during that time, but assumed that they were somehow in some kind of “outlier” category—when, in fact, they were part of a growing population of people who didn’t feel compelled or drawn to church during a national crisis.
There are two basic questions that I would love to ask on a much bigger scale, and to have asked by those poll takers from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal (or the Pew Research Center, which has found a similar story in their research): 1) what is it exactly that happened in the late twentieth century that motivated people to feel less connected to organized religion? and 2) why do the people who regularly attend worship still do so?
I’m not so sure that I would really want to know the answers to these questions, but they are the ones that keep popping up whenever a study offers the same data that people are less connected to organized religion. After all, this isn’t news to me. I’ve known it for a long time.
I’d just like to know why—and also what it means for the people I pastor.