Gary Shaw’s View From the Bridge

Dear Pilgrims,

My last reflection about those seeking a “spiritual” connection verses a “religious” connection and quoting research by the Gallop which noted that New England has the lowest percentage of people who claim that “religion plays a daily part in their lives” has drawn a great deal of commentary. I am thankful for the variety of research and questions that have come my way; if nothing else I am grateful that people find these ramblings interesting.
Allow me to share with you some of the reflections that returned to me. Paul writes:
I read with interest your recent commentary in “A View from the Bridge” and it prompted me to investigate something I’ve always been curious about (and something you are probably already aware of).  As background, in my daily life when I encounter “formerly churched” people who now consider themselves to be non-religious, they most often seem to be former Catholics. I did some research and found that there is a very strong inverse correlation between the % of Catholics in a state and the % of the population that considers itself to be religious. You mentioned that “Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas (are) the most religious states in the nation.”  According to a recent study (see reference below), 8 of the top 10 states with the fewest Catholics are, in order, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Georgia (8th ).  In other words, all 5 of the most religious states are also the least Catholic.

Then you mention that “Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts are the least religious.” In fact six out of the ten least religious states are located in the soon to be New England Conference. (VT 42%, NH 46%, ME 48%, MA 48%, AK 51%, WA 52%, OR 53%, RI 53%, NV 54%, CT 55%).  According to my research, 4 of the top 10 most Catholic states are in the NE Annual Conference and are among the least religious. Those states are, in order, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut (4th), and New Hampshire (7th).

Correlation is not causation; however, there is a clear relationship between a states Catholic population and the percent of that state that consider themselves to be non-religious My hypothesis is that when Catholicism is rejected by much of its traditional base, those people often do not return to be churched elsewhere. What does/should the UMC do to better meet the needs of this specific group of “unchurched” who were once people of faith but now find themselves with no place to turn?

Kevin wrote:
The questions you raise in your musings on the Gallup “State of the States” poll are very stimulating.  Let me respond to your final question: “Will we have the ability to adapt…?  If by “we” you mean the institutional church – whether mainline or evangelical or Roman Catholic… and if the “us” includes the 52% of the population who do not self-identify as “religious,” then the answer is no… the institutional church will not adapt.  The new wave of spirituality you correctly identify has more in common with Craigslist and Wikipedia than institutional Christianity.  This new wave has no need of “gate-keepers” or structure.  The institutional church is on the down-side of the bell curve.  I expect that if the Gallup poll had been broken down into age cohorts the results would have been even more discouraging for the institutional church.  Institutional mainline and evangelical Christianity stopped working for most of the young a long time ago.  Does there continue to be a place for the institutional church in New England?  Absolutely… after all there is still the 48% (even if that 48% continues to shrink).  Let’s celebrate that.  But let’s also recognize that something new is happening; and the new wine will not work in the old wineskin.  There is no need to lament the old wineskin… God honored it and blessed it for many years.  But let’s remember it’s not the wineskin that matters, it the wine!  What can we (those who have drunk deeply from the old wineskin) do?  We can send people out – being careful not to try to impose our old wineskin ways – to live and share the gospel.”
A couple of comments. In a recent Lily Foundation that came out of Trinity College in Hartford, CT, (summary below) there has been a significance decrease in Catholicism in the New England States. Rhode Island which has typically been one of the most heavily populated Roman states went from 62% of the population being Catholic in 1980 to 48% in 2008; essentially losing a generation of people.
That same study noted that the term “evangelical”, which is what I believe most Wesleyan’s are, be they progressive or conservative, has been co-opted to by various organization to express a “political agenda” as opposed to a spiritual passion inclusive of piety and social justice. While the Methodist Church continues to lose membership, as do all mainlines, are people “rethinking” how church is done and how relationships might be built in a different way? Do people recognize who we are (Christians) based on a negative perception (what we do/belief) instead of a positive? Do we recognize the death of the institution church, or are we in such denial that we cannot see its demise? And, in this season of Lent, as we approach Easter, “what is unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see?” Perhaps our Lenten journey is to pray for a new path, unformed as it is, instead of walking the same road with same destination.

One thought on “Gary Shaw’s View From the Bridge

  1. Dorothy Okray

    Gary, I worked at the Chilmark Church as a ministerial intern about 10 years ago. Just found your website several months ago. Checked back a few times and was in awe of your sermon.

    The declining Christian Church is of particular interest to me. The parallel between ex-Catholics and low church attendance , however, was unique ….one that has never been brought up in all the reading I have done. Fascinating! Would love to follow up on it.

    Frankly, I think this generation’s fast paced, stressful life demands an excellence of church that it has never experienced. If that hour does not produce something worthy of their precious time, many/most of the young people will not attend. In my own non-professional survey, I found tired sermons, committee infighting, sloppy theology and the hypocrocy of members/pastors in their own lives and attitudes to be the main reason for non attendance.

    I started an alternate service on Sunday nights with the blessings of our Troy Conference…upstate New York. The overwhelming majority of the attendees were drop outs from many denominations…..and most were professionals.

    I received a grant from the conference for publicity and began a service way outside the box. I learned that these “drop outs” were among the most compassionate, loving people I had ever encountered. So, there is hope if we can quit trying to shove these people into those old wineskins.

    Keep up the good work, Dorothy Okray


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