Monday morning, March 3, 2008
What has emerged from the think tank at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is as comprehensive a snapshot of religion in American life as ever produced. The nation’s talking about it. After sifting through a mountain of data, certain conclusions surfaced. And they are making headlines.
I got a rather curious call from a long time friend who now resides in Florida. Dan and I remember well the days we wandered around the streets of the big city back in those gloomy years when Apocalypse loomed heavy on the horizon. We were classmates in Bible school. The world as we knew it seemed to be coming apart at the seams. There were assassinations (a second Kennedy, civil rights leader, Dr. King) that sparked rioting in the streets. The violence and looting and mayhem went on for weeks, then months. National Guard troops, in a display of armed force, drove up and down the city boulevards and avenues in their in an effort to keep the peace. (The police force wasn’t enough.) In the summer of 1968, our city of Chicago hosted the Democratic Convention. It was a dark night for American politics. The films of bloody clashes in the streets and angry speeches inside the great hall are all part of American history; a part that many would rather forget.
For three years straight, we traveled on Greyhound busses criss-crossing the nation with a pack of guys in a men’s choir. A drive-by we’ll never forget was in Memphis, Tennessee. Thirty days after the shooting, our driver took us past the Lorraine Motel. I snapped two photos – one of the balcony where Martin Luther King leaned on the railing as he chatted with young Jesse Jackson and a couple of his colleagues and the other of the small window up the hill on the opposite side of the street, a weathered clapboard house where James Earl Ray found the civil rights activist in his sights.
But for Dan and me, there were lighter moments, too. Fifty college age guys in a bus find ways to pass the time. There was no shortage of creativity. We still laugh heartily at the memories.
But this time he called just to talk church. Our conversation sounded strangely like the the results of the Pew research, though Dan had not seen it yet. Here we are, a couple of Boomers who spent our formative years back then living within the confines of protectionist walls built by our spiritual fore-fathers but wandering outside just long enough to have developed some serious questions of our own. Those questions still linger to this very day.
“What the heck is going on in the church in America?” Dan asked. It triggered a belly laugh. “How much time do we have?” was all the response I could muster. I told him I’ve spent the good part of four years pondering that same question.
We talked for an hour or so and covered topics like “arena church” and “rock-star pastors” and closed door governance and staff big enough to require HR departments and campuses to rival the community Performing Arts Center. But our talk went way beyond questions about mega-church. It had more to do with our place in it. Where do we fit?
The folks at Pew have made several observations. American’s “like to shop.” There is a surprising absence of commitment to a religious community based on generational loyalties. The ranks of the “unaffiliated” is the fastest growing group. “Evangelical” churches out-number “mainline” denominations. Denominationalism is on the wane. The world of religion in America is fluid, highly competitive and filled up with people who share a short attention span.
All this said, Dan and I agreed, there’s something here we can’t let go of. Do we have hold of it or does it have hold of us? We’re not sure. Either way, we can’t escape it.
I think it has something to do with “call.”
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On this Monday morning, as a leader, you’ve got questions, too. You see the trends of religion in America from close range. Where is it going? Is there a place to live out our calling?
Thanks for the call, Dan.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008