The religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories. A new poll by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many say they attend worship services of more than one faith or denomination -- even when they are not traveling or going to special events like weddings and funerals. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. And sizeable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts.
One-third of Americans (35%) say they regularly (9%) or occasionally (26%) attend religious services at more than one place, and most of these (24% of the public overall) indicate that they sometimes attend religious services of a faith different from their own. Aside from when they are traveling and special events like weddings and funerals, three-in-ten Protestants attend services outside their own denomination, and one-fifth of Catholics say they sometimes attend non-Catholic services.
A few comments. . .
Before we hear those who cry out about the lack of knowledge or substantial knowledge among Christians... before we pound our fists on the table to decry what we consider apostasy... before we condemn... might we see this as a grand opportunity?
It is clear that Americans are interested in things religious (something the dechurched in other populations are no longer concerned about). This interest, curiosity if you will, offers the Church a marvelous opportunity to truly teach the faith to a people truly interested in learning. So before curmudgeons like me begin to harp on how bad these findings are, let us remember that within them is an open door to complete our Lord's bidding and teach everything He has commanded...
It is also clear that we face a very different religious landscape than we did in the past. People have multiple sources of information, they have more information (not always very good information but they have more information), and they have personal experience which tends to soften the threats of groups that challenge us.
Pastors can no longer stand up in front of congregations and drone on about the evils of other faiths. That is not to say that their words might not be true; the landscape of religious Americans has changed and this tactic no longer carries much weight. People have googled things on the Internet, they have neighbors who come from these other churches and faiths, they work with a diverse religious group of people, they have family members and friends who run the gamut of faiths and beliefs. Unlike when I grew up and had hardly ever attended a non-Lutheran (make that non-Missouri Synod Lutheran) congregation, people have more experience today. What they have seen, they may not like but it does not shock them or cause them to fear these other faiths.
People today are willing to allow competing truths to stand together, even if they conflict with each other. It is the nature of our times to chose both instead of one and the correct path in America today is diversity with superficial unity, to a buffet religion in which you pick and choose the things you want, and to a religious truth that is no larger than me. You can yell about this all you want but in the classroom you must deal with it and deal with it showing the winsome face of Christian truth and piety (the judgmental face will not do).
I for one do not think we have anything to fear when it comes to opening the Scriptures, opening our Confessions, and opening up the liturgy. The Christian truth is not suspect or weak or fragile. It is not subject to hemorrhage or fracture. This is the truth that shall endure past the end of time, the efficacious truth that does what it says, and the saving truth that marks us for God and a new eternal destiny. What we need to do is not condemn others but honestly teach the faith of our fathers to the children of our own generation -- with all its mystery and loose ends as well as its answers and clarity... with confidence and boldness... to borrow a phrase, the audacity of hope is still alive in Christ.
I know my people read books published by others, that they have visited everything from Kingdom Halls to Mormon Temples, and that they have yearnings for Eastern meditative spirituality and ideas about fullness and peace... but they generally come to me and to the Church to find out what faith says about these things... They are teachable but they have questions, they are sponges but they need to be immersed in the right source, and they are curious but they need direction.
We have so much to teach, so many to teach, so many resources to help us teach... let us as Pastors and the Church teach in a winsome way, in a welcoming manner, that invites people in... Part of that teaching will include dogma and doctrine and a new light on these words that have become code for judgement and arrogance today. Christian people do not need stock answers but they need to be taught to think Christianly -- to think through the eyes of their faith.
When I was a youth, I memorized the Catechism of Luther but it was not until college that I began to think Christianly -- I did not want to, I just wanted the answers because that is how I had been taught to think, but I am thankful for those teachers who taught me to connect the dots, to think with the mind of Christ moved by the heart of Christ... And this is exactly what is missing in our time... Not just Lutherans have noticed this... We have a marvelous opportunity before us... what will we do with it?