The Barna Group, based in Ventura County, is an organization which does reputable work on trends in religious life in the US. Their perspective tends to the conservative Christian, and their responses to identifiable movements in the religious scene in America don’t often line up with my own, but I find their studies useful in assessing what’s going on in American religion.
They have released their end-of-year summary, and identified four basic trends in the past year:
- Increasingly, Americans are more interested in faith and spirituality than in Christianity.
- Faith in the American context is now individual and customized. Americans are comfortable with an altered spiritual experience as long as they can participate in the shaping of that faith experience.
- Biblical literacy is neither a current reality nor a goal in the U.S.
- Effective and periodic measurement of spirituality – conducted personally or through a church – is not common at this time and it is not likely to become common in the near future.
I think these are not far off the mark, but don’t share Barna’s distress, expressed in comments like:
Americans typically draw from a broad treasury of moral, spiritual and ethical sources of thought to concoct a uniquely personal brand of faith. Feeling freed from the boundaries established by the Christian faith, and immersed in a postmodern society which revels in participation, personal expression, satisfying relationships, and authentic experiences, we become our own unchallenged spiritual authorities, defining truth and reality as we see fit.
Consequently, more and more people are engaged in hybrid faiths, mixing elements from different historical eras and divergent theological perspectives,” Barna stated. “In some ways, we are creating the ultimate ecumenical movement, where nothing is deemed right or wrong, and all ideas, beliefs and practices are assigned equal validity. Everyone is invited to join the dialogue, enjoy the ride, and feel connected to a far-reaching community of believers. Screening or critiquing what that community believes is deemed rude and inappropriate. Pragmatism and relativism, rather than any sort of absolutism, has gained momentum.”
I suspect that to some extent, the move from “Christianity” to “faith and spirituality” is a reflection of the increasing religious diversity of our culture, and the recognition that there are, indeed, many different expressions of the religious impulse. As people become aware of other traditions, they find much that is admirable in those traditions, and may, in fact, adopt attitudes, rituals, or perspectives that are different from those they have previously been familiar with.
Every encounter we have changes us. Most of the time we are not aware of it, because sometimes the change simply reinforces our existing perspective or attitudes. But the more opportunity we have to encounter truly different ways of thinking and being, the more we are challenged to understand our own traditions more deeply, or else to critique or even change them.
A “pure” form of religious tradition can only be something that has been frozen in place- a tradition that is no longer living and engaged in the real world around. Religions change, because our experiences change, we change. Something is lost, and many may mourn its passing. But something is gained, as well, and that can be cause for rejoicing.
- Year in Review Perspective (The Barna Group)