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The journalist's new book shines a spotlight on the setbacks facing Christianity in America

Journalist Bob Smietana, in Reformed Religion: Reshaping the American Church and Why It Matters, argues that American Christianity is divided, declining, and an obvious solution to fix what is broken. suggests that there is no easy way to do it.

Publisher’s Weekly called it “a must-read for anyone investing in the fate of the Church in America” ​​and “an excellent look at the future of the Christian Church.”

Paraphrasing from a science fiction book titled “Wars of the Old Man,” Smietana compares the decline of religious institutions to the decline that comes with aging.

“It’s not about one thing going wrong, it’s about everything going wrong at the same time,” he said. “That’s the religion in America today.”

For places of worship, covid-19 has been a kick in the teeth. But this is the latest in a series of setbacks that have shaken many sects.

“Everything changed at the same time,” said Sumietana, whose book came out Tuesday.

The red-blue split is one problem. So does the aging Christian population and declining birth rates. Young people, on average, attend less frequently, give less generously, and are less likely to embrace traditional views of human sexuality. Also, Sunday mornings have more options.

For many, the onslaught was overwhelming.

“If it’s just political polarization, demographic change, social norm change, technology change, economic change, people may be able to adapt. But Now that’s all,” said Smeetana.

For the congregation, he noted, setbacks can feel personal.

This is especially true for those working on what Josh Packard, executive director of Springtide Research, calls the Hamlet Problem, Smietana said.

Like the brooding Shakespearean characters, “These congregations and their leaders think they are stars. What happens to them depends largely on their decisions.” , I think it’s all a mental problem,” Sumietana said.

As a result, setbacks feel like personal failures rather than inevitable challenges.

In reality, “You’re not the star of the show. You’re in the bigger drama, you’re the bit player, and the drama is going on around you, subject to all other factors.” he said..

When difficulties arise, he said, “You have to adapt to it. It doesn’t mean it’s your fault.” “You didn’t cause those things, but you have to deal with them.”

About Sumietana

A national reporter for the Religion News Service, Smietana is an avid observer of American faith and is a Christian himself.

He has worked as senior news editor for Christianity Today, a leading evangelical monthly magazine, and senior writer for Facts & Trends, a quarterly magazine published by the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Christian Resources.

For a time he was also a religious writer for the (Nashville) Tennessian.

At times, riding the so-called “godbeat” can be dangerous to one’s faith. I got a job and retired as an atheist. After years of covering sex abuse lawsuits and money-centric prosperity gospel preachers.

In nearly a quarter of a century of covering religion, Smeetana is neither an advocate nor an apostate.

“Faith hurts and heals. Faith separates and unites us. Builds cathedrals and burns cities. Gives life and brings death,” he wrote.

“Ask if religion is good, is like asking if music is good, food is good, politics is good, baseball is good, works of art, science, or any other human endeavour. Religion is human, and that’s important,” he adds.

Smietana emphasizes the sense of community that a place of worship can provide.

In his own life, he describes how members of the Grace Covenant Church, a small congregation on Chicago’s north side, welcomed him and his wife when life was difficult and marriage strained. It reminds me of

He also shared how he helped his faith community cope with his brother’s sudden death, provided food to help his family go to the funeral, and helped the family go to the funeral. .

“What happened to my family happens every day in churches and religious groups of all kinds,” he wrote. Religion can be the source of goodness in the world, and that goodness is now in danger.”

decline of religion

For decades, evangelical churches grew while major denominations lost members.

These days, almost all Protestant groups are declining in number.

Church attendance plummeted early in the covid-19 public health emergency. In most places, in-person attendance is well below pre-pandemic numbers.

In a chapter titled “They Don’t Love Us Anymore”, he interviews several people who stopped going to church in March 2020 and never came back. , he said, the church was no longer “a natural part of the rhythm of life.”

In Reorganized Religion, Smietana wrote that the decline of organized religion “will affect us all, regardless of who we are or what we believe.” claims.

The sense of community and belonging that comes with membership in many religious groups is important, he suggests, and difficult to replicate.

change with the times

He argues that organized religion “can and should be saved” and gives examples of congregations that have managed to thrive in difficult times.

In one instance, the dying Seattle Congregational Church, founded by Swedish immigrants in 1953, voted to “sacrificing itself” to a newer, younger, more diverse congregation known as Quest. Sumietana writes.

The combined church is thriving, with an average attendance of 753 in 2019.

Now, he’s helping two former Arkansas residents start a multi-ethnic congregation called The Church We Hope For in Pasadena, California.

In Smyrna, Tennessee, a moribund Episcopal Church, mostly white, received a group of refugees from Burma. (Burma is often referred to as Myanmar, the name adopted by military authorities in 1989. Some countries, such as the US and the UK, have refused to adopt this name change.) Today, The hymn is sung in one of the commonly spoken Karen languages. in that part of the Asian country.

He suggests that as countries become more diverse, churches that recognize and embrace these demographic changes are more likely to succeed.

Towards the end of the book, Smietana warns against the danger of schism and quotes a Klingon verse from The Gospel According to Star Trek: “Only fools fight in burning houses”.

Unity helps, but it’s not always enough.

Small Congregational Struggle

While megachurches are thriving, tens of thousands of smaller congregations are struggling to survive.

Since joining Godbeat in 1999, he has seen that number steadily decline.

“When I started reporting on religion, the average church size was 137. [weekly attendees] And now I’m 65,” Sumietana said, citing data from the 2020 Faith Community Today survey.

Near the end of his book, he praises the Grace Covenant Church (and others like it) for being a source of hope and healing over the years.

“I want to tell them that their efforts are not in vain,” he said.

Unfortunately, when this book is published in paperback, the Grace Covenant Church will not exist. The congregation voted to close its doors last month and held its final service on Sunday.

Sumietana attended to say goodbye.

Religion reporter Bob Smietana has witnessed the decline of the US church in the 21st century. He said, “The average size church when I started was … 137. [weekly attendees] And now I’m 65,” he said, citing data from the 2020 Faith Communities Today survey.
Photo On Sunday afternoon in the midst of the pandemic, Little Rock’s Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church drew dozens of worshippers for its October ordination service. Nationwide, attendance at most places of worship is down from pre-covid-19 levels. (Arkansas Democratic Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)