A Feature Review of
Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters
Reviewed by Stephen R. Clark
Churches across the country are failing and closing in astonishing numbers. Our local news recently reported a story of an old church built in the 1890s that was now a restaurant and brewery. In fact, some of the seating were pews salvaged from yet another nearby church that was being demolished. Great pride was expressed by the owners in being able to save and re-purpose the former church building that continues “fulfilling its historic mission as a gathering place for the community.”
What’s missed in this story is that two churches and their congregations are gone. They’ve gained a place to have a beer and a burger, but lost resources that once provided services and ministries for the good of the community. This church closed in 1959, an early victim to a trend that is gaining momentum.
This is the reality shared in Reorganized Religion by Bob Smietana. Smietana admits that he’s not a theologian or sociologist, but as a veteran reporter, he expertly stitches together stories he has accumulated as a religion reporter into a narrative that reveals the ongoing deconstruction of organized religion in America. In true journalistic fashion, he reports what he has seen across the country from the 1960s to the present.
Behind the stories there are plenty of statistics. Citing a Pew Religion survey from 2021, he points out that nearly 30 percent of Americans are “nones,” those who check the box “none” on surveys asking for their religious affiliation. The nones are on the rise, up from 16 percent in 2007. At the same time, the percentage of those claiming status as Christian has dropped from 78 percent to 63 percent.
Church attendance is dropping. He cites a Faith Communities Today (FCT) study showing that two decades ago, the median average attendance at worship services was 137. Today the median attendance is 65. Much of the decline happened in medium-sized churches (100-250) which are rapidly turning into small churches. The FCT study also discovered that “10 percent of the congregations — those whose worship services draw more than 250 people — attract 60 percent of churchgoers.”
Mark Chaves of Duke Divinity School believes this growth of megachurches (defined as churches of more than 250 people) is not a sign of vitality but of further decline. Why? Because people attend large churches to hide from involvement. He says, “it is easier to free-ride. Some people are involved in a big way, but lots of people are not.” Also, when a large church fails, the fallout is far more damaging than if a small church closes. Still, the impact of churches closing, large or small, is significant. According to a Lifeway Research study collecting data from 24 denominations, in 2019, 4,500 churches shut down, while only 3,000 new churches opened. Statistics such as these are scattered throughout the book, and when taken together, paint a semi-bleak picture of the state of today’s organized religion in America.
What are some of the key problems that are driving church failure? Two stand out in Smietana’s book. First; demographics are shifting. Many congregations are white and aging. They are not attracting new people and those who remain are dying. “The old America was mostly white and mostly Christian. The new America is diverse and pluralistic.” The people whom most churches were “built to serve no longer exist and the assumptions that led to the creation of those churches and denominations no longer hold.”
A second problem is related to the persistent conflicts and controversies within the church. The big stories such as the fall of Mars Hill, the challenges within the SBC, the exposed abuse in the Catholic Church, and so many more, drive people away and are deterrents to church growth. Even the local squabbles within congregations do the same thing. “As religious groups decline, they often turn on one another– consumed by internal conflict rather than facing the challenges that threaten their future,” Smietana writes. The extreme polarization of politics in the church has clearly not helped. He says, “It’s hard to worship with people who think you are the devil.” He compares the mixing of the church and politics to combining ice cream and manure. Politics being the manure.
Then there was COVID-19. In the midst of shifting demographics, petty conflicts, and brutally partisan politics, the pandemic was somewhat like gas on a fire. Those who were on the fence about staying in church were knocked off and out. A Hartford Institute study found that during the pandemic about one third of congregations lost at least a quarter of their attendees. At the same time, volunteer engagement in churches dropped from 40% to 15%. Even those who considered church a normal rhythm of their lives were disrupted. “For the first time in years, people who usually could be found in church pews like clockwork found themselves with new choices of what to do with their Sunday mornings,” Smietana explains. For many, these new choices have continued to keep them away from church.
Is this disruption and dismantling of organized religion a good thing? Smietana suggests that it is not. “Despite all its flaws — and they are legion — organized religion can be a source for good in the world.” Interestingly enough, part of its goodness is in the very fact that it is organized. Organized religion is effective at raising funds for important causes, at training, equipping and providing volunteers to address disasters, gathering and providing food and clothing for those in need, operating homeless shelters, providing tutoring, engaging in refugee resettlement, and so much more. Ryan Burge from Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor, points out, “Churches have been a safety net for American society for decades but have really been overlooked and taken advantage of, and just assumed they would always exist.” Clearly, that’s not the case.
Smietana explains, “[I]t’s hard to quantify exactly how much assistance churches and other faith groups provide, since much of it is provided on an informal basis and by local congregations.” In other words, the failure of organized religion in America will leave gaping holes in the social fabric with the loss of services and volunteers that will simply vanish.
What’s the solution? As Smietana says repeatedly, it’s not simple and will take hard work. There’s no silver bullet fix. Churches need to set aside differences, be willing to embrace diversity, welcome immigrants, care more about people instead of traditions, recognize the world has changed– and all of this is just for starters.
The value of Reorganized Religion is that in story after story, statistics are validated, while simultaneously, there are an abundance of stories that provide examples of how these challenges are being met successfully. The book could benefit from subheadings, charts and bullet lists to better organize the statistics. Still, it is an important book well worth reading. Smietana is an excellent reporter and a fine writer.
Stephen R. Clark
Stephen R. Clark is a writer who lives in Lansdale, PA with his wife, BethAnn, and their two rescue cats, Watson and Sherlock. His website is www.StephenRayClark.com. He is a member of the Evangelical Press Association and a regular contributor to the Christian Freelance Writers Network blog (https://christianfreelancewritersnetwork.wordpress.com/). He also walked on fire. Once.
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