Why I’m not sad about the empty pews

For this next blog post, I’m happy to turn the floor over to my beloved and insightful young friend, Gabrielle (Brie) Stoner. Here’s to the next generation!!  — Cynthia

Photo courtesy of Robbin Whittington
Photo courtesy of Robbin Whittington

On May 12, 2015, the Pew Research Center published a now widely talked about report titled “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” The report details the decline of Christianity in our nation in contrast to the rising cohort of religious “nones,” a term describing those who have become religiously unaffiliated, which has grown to 22.8% in the past seven years alone. Although in part due to the generational replacement of the rising millennial cohort, a generation comprised of 36% religious “nones”, the report describes the decline as happening across all generations. According to the research findings, the greatest drop in membership is occurring in Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, which includes the United Methodist Church, the American Baptist churches USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Episcopal church.[i]

Like the well-known Chicken Little folk tale, Christians have set the internet ablaze with declarations that the sky is falling, entirely missing the acorn potential our time represents. Among the downbeat responses on the blogosphere, one in particular caught my attention: a reflection by The Rt. Rev. G. Porter Taylor of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina titled “Reflection on Evangelism.” Taylor describes the Pew Research findings as “not good,” and how in his opinion this indicates the need for us to change our evangelism tactics. He details his upcoming exploration of evangelism through the telling of our stories via attendance at multiple workshops and conferences on this topic.

Although I greatly respect Bishop Porter Taylor, I disagree that this trend pew reported on needs to be viewed as bad and that spending time in narrative workshops is the answer. I am familiar with the narrative “tell your story” trend in conferences that has swept the Protestant Christian nation in the last several years. I can’t help but feel that it is placing more eggs in the basket of personal narratives and identification, when what we need now (more than ever) is the flexibility that comes from being non-identified (to storylines, dogma, orthodoxy) in order to be flexible enough for evolution to do its work in Christianity and in all of us.

What I see when I read the Pew Study is proof that humanity is evolving…and right now Christianity is behind when it could be on the forefront of evolution. I’ll stand by Teilhard de Chardin’s theories of why that is: we have to address the outdated dogma that is creating in his words “an intellectual and emotional straight jacket”[ii] on the human spirit.

I believe the religious exodus we are experiencing in our time is ultimately an opportunity: an opportunity to wake up and to additionally begin employing our creativity to writing new liturgy and revising dogma, to creating a solid theology around an alternative orthodoxy. I see places like the Rohr Institute’s Living School for Action and Contemplation as the potential breeding ground for new Nicaeas or Chalcedons. Perhaps one day (and hopefully soon) they would offer fellowships so people could get to work on writing and making accessible a Christianity that doesn’t abandon the tradition it hails from, but builds upon it. Just as evolution is in the process of complexification and convergence, couldn’t we work to create and build upon what is stagnant and breathe dynamism and dimensions to what has become flat?

I love this world and the people in it too much to discard their experiences and perspectives as ones that just haven’t heard the compelling narrative that would change their minds. What I believe is that it is us (Christianity) who need to change, and then in our humility and capacity to address what isn’t working about these rusty joints that in their lack of mobility have become cages, we will be able to mobilize for the first time that faith capable of animating the entire human family through a faith that is in movement, that flows, that is evolution itself.

My view on things? This is an extremely luminous and hopeful time.


[i] Alan Cooperman, Gregory Smith, Katherine Ritchey. “America’s Changing Religious Lanscape.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (May 12, 2015). http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/, Accessed on May 13, 2015. [ii] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution, trans. René Hague (New York: Harcourt, 1971), 80.

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4 thoughts on “Why I’m not sad about the empty pews

  1. Happily stumbled upon this blog. I wholeheartedly agree with the vision of a need to change. “We are evolution,” T’s Phenomenon of Man. ‘Writing new liturgies and revising dogma’ is global work. Nothing matches Catholicism’s breadth and depth to shoulder this task. It will happen, but people must be patient. Instead of changing the Church people are exiting in droves, we must be the change. Whence the burgeoning of the contemplative. Such is the pre-dawn pinking that precedes the earthquakes we await. To be faithful to the dynamism of evolution, we must also be detached from the need to produce the quantum leap. We must do our part and remember it is a small part. We’d do well to think in terms of centuries and millennia when we offer the world tableaus of hope. This is a tiny whisper from the easily ignored plains of North Dakota. I’m impressed with Cynthia’s work recently discovered. Peace & blessings on her and her disciples.

  2. I was raised an Episcopalian and in my late teens and twenties became interested in Eastern religion and philosophy and meditation. I am basically an agnostic, but a couple of years ago–in my early 60s–I discovered Unitarian Universalism and actually have become a full-fledged member. UUs believe that spiritualism in constantly evolving and new understandings are continuously being revealed to us. In our church we draw on many different philosophies and religions, including Christianity. Every individual is free to follow their own spiritual path and understanding. We have atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Pagans, etc., etc. I’ve finally found the kind of open- mindedness and tolerance I am comfortable with in a church. Just wish I’d found it sooner–when my son was a child.

  3. Yes, this is so true. I know the old narrative very well thanks to my 12 years of Catholic school training, and I was glad to leave it behind to become a “none”/”spiritual but not religious”/”interspiritual.” I’m grateful for Cynthia’s work, which has done a lot to convince me that Christianity can be so much more than the old (and so aptly phrased) “intellectual and emotional straight jacket. I think it’s what many of us “wounded Christians” secretly hope for.

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