Source: The Las Cruces Sun-News
By Fr. Gabriel Rochelle
I like to think that the current brouhaha about the diminution of religious commitment in America is a good thing. It's an attention-grabber even if it is probably inaccurate as stated. Here are three thoughts.
First, the issue is not so much the diminution of religious commitment; it's really about people dropping off the edges of churches who were never really committed to the enterprise anyway. Their connection was cultural or ethnic or social or what have you. They did not carry a sense of deep belonging to a faith community centered on the resurrection of Christ. So what's the loss, really, under these circumstances? If you wind up with a stronger core, there actually is no loss but in fact there may be gain. To put it bluntly, only the serious need apply. Christendom is gone. It had its heyday, but it's gone. And that's a good thing.
To look at my own house, for example, the latest surveys of Orthodox Christianity in America suggest that we are losing people at a rate similar to all other churches. A lot of this is by attrition. The population of all churches is aging in this period of non-joining. The ideal of American individualism has penetrated deep into our bones. We abstain, for the most part, from joining any organizations unless there is clear benefit involved. The loss of membership in service organizations like the Lions and Optimists is noteworthy; the loss in fraternal organizations like the Elks and the Masons is noteworthy. Why should the church be exempt from the same cultural trend?
Well, there is a possible answer to that question: the church could be exempt, or at least perceived and treated differently, because it is a community of faith. The mission statement for service organizations requires a different degree or kind of commitment. The Lions' mission statement is this: "To empower volunteers to serve their communities, meet humanitarian needs, encourage peace and promote international understanding through Lions clubs."
Commendable in and of itself, the mission does not require faith or belief. The church does.
Second thought: Apart from faith commitment, the losses in church membership will parallel the general societal trend. Just as people will say that they uphold the values of, say, the Lions but are not members, so will you find people who say the same thing about any church membership.
I accept the idea that people may live by the values proposed by religious institutions without being part of a faith community. In fact, all criticism to the contrary notwithstanding, that is our situation in the United States.
Thus, thought number three: Despite attempts to gainsay the background to American culture, American values are, for the most part, representative of a particular kind of Christian values, because the dominant force in early American is protestant. What we have come to call "middle class" virtues — strong work ethic, loyalty to country and family, honesty, frugality, and responsibility — these are characteristic of the dominant stream of American Protestantism.
I've often said I'd rather discuss good faith with an atheist than with someone whose understanding has been twisted by bad faith. So we could welcome news about the diminution of religion with open arms because it is so much easier to discuss genuine Christianity — or Judaism or Islam or any religious movement — without the prejudices and misunderstandings that swirl around us.
This loss may, in fact, prove to be a gain in the long haul because it clears the boards for genuine conversation.
Fr. Gabriel Rochelle is pastor of St Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Mission in Las Cruces. The church web site is www.stanthonylc.org.