#TaxTheChurches was trending on Twitter recently. Most of the comments were not balanced assessments of how church donations and government programs influence the world. They were more like what you would expect during an evening of troll karaoke: mockery, anger, and ugliness.
Much of this resentment comes from an understandable place. When I hear about a minister wearing $5,000 shoes or a priest cheerfully breaking all the commandments at the same time, I feel betrayed. Believers and non-believers can unite against those using religion to prey on others. And I think we can all agree that church leaders should spend tithes and offerings lifting the poor and downtrodden, serving their congregations, and engaging in community activities – not on personal luxury.
Let’s briefly explore the value of organized religion and whether we should consider trading it in for a more solitary brand of spirituality.
Spirituality versus religiosity
For the purposes of this post, we define religion as a set of beliefs and practices shared by a community and including church membership. Spirituality is a set of beliefs and practices that emphasize the individual’s connection to God or to a higher power. Many consider themselves spiritual but not religious, and a few see themselves as religious but not spiritual.
Survey research shows that church membership has been declining since the 1970s and more rapidly since the 2000s and the growth of the internet. Currently, about 47% of Americans attend a church – down from 73% in 1965.1 Instead of denying God altogether, most people leaving religion seem to be doing so in favor of a more individualized spirituality.2 Apparently, the downsizing of religion is not so much a crisis of faith as it is the distrust of mankind.
Perhaps you are thinking, “If I just remove flawed humanity from my spiritual life, then I can have an unencumbered connection to God. I can meet and serve people outside of a religious context. And better to be lonely than consumed by charlatans.”
This perspective is reasonable but problematic. Part of true religion is wandering alone into the wilderness to connect with God, but a religion of one is incomplete. Lasting spirituality is communal – where we lift others up, strengthen them in their faith, and lean on them for strength in return.
Spiritual loners miss the mutually reinforcing strength of religious community. Sometimes you need someone else to know you, inspire you, and urge you to carry on. Sometimes you need friends in the faith.
And the data shows that it is increasingly difficult to find strong connections outside of a religious community. People are less and less likely to know their neighbors, their houses are larger and filled with fewer people, marriage rates are declining, families are smaller, and the number of close confidants the average person has is falling.
|Attributes of religion and spirituality||Spiritual loner||Religion + Spirituality|
|Take responsibility for others in the religious community and serve them||No religious community||Yes|
|Take responsibility for others in the broader community and serve them||Yes||Yes|
|Participate in rites and ordinances that bind them together and to God||Generally no||Yes|
|Receive sets of teachings, laws and scriptures that outline how to live happily||Yes||Yes|
|Find a sense of belonging and connection to God||Yes||Yes|
|Find a sense of belonging and connection to the religious community||No religious community||Yes|
It is true that some members of the religious pack get distracted by the rituals and find themselves disconnected from a personal relationship with God. Others feel like church leaders are in the way of their connection to God or that spiritual communion is only available at a price. So, if your religious henhouse is filled with foxes, cast them out or find a new house – a congregation without grasping leaders. Luckily there are about 330,000 congregations in the US.3
All things being equal, there is more potential connection, strength, and meaning in a church than outside of one. So, now you know my opinion on this sensitive and deeply personal topic. I’d love to hear yours too.