“It’s Not a Problem for God”: Reflecting on the Decline in Trust in Religious Institutions

Last month, a Gallup Poll revealed that Americans’ trust in religious institutions continues to decline. Just 44% of Americans say that they ‘have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in “the church or organized religion” today.’

This doesn’t surprise me. After all, these latest Gallup figures are largely in line with those from 2007 (46%) and 2002 (45%).

gallup graph

Added to that, the Emerging Church Movement (ECM), currently one of my main research interests, is symptomatic of that decline in confidence in ‘institutional’ churches.

People in the ECM, most of whom have a background in evangelical Protestantism, have generally become disillusioned with the behaviour of their (previous) churches in areas like their association with right-wing politics and their perceived neglect of social justice issues.

And add to that the dramatic decline in confidence among Catholics, almost certainly owing to the Catholic Church’s handling of the child sexual abuse scandals, and it could be concluded that even in the notoriously pious United States, religion is on the way out.

That possibility was probed in a recent broadcast of National Public Radio’s (NPR) All Things Considered (thanks to Colleen Brown for drawing the programme to my attention).

Listening to the audio version of the programme, I chuckled at the way that NPR’s religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty responded to the Gallup findings:

‘It’s a problem for the religious institutions. It’s not a problem for God.’

Hagerty cited all sorts of data supporting the view that American religion would indeed survive. She noted that most Americans still believe in God, and pointed out that non-denominational evangelical churches continue to thrive.

She linked the success of the non-denominational evangelical churches to their preaching that people can have a personal relationship with God; as well as with their emphasis on ‘mystery’ and ‘marketing.’

Hagerty spoke further about the US’ ‘free market of religion,’ where churches compete to ‘bring people in the doors.’

Following a venerable tradition in the sociology of religion, she says this explains why the US remains more religious than Western Europe, where a religious ‘market’ could not develop because of the stultifying monopolistic influence of state churches.

I think that the ‘religious market’ theory does explain a lot about the so-called ‘vitality’ of American religion. But I sigh when religion is reduced to a ‘market’ where ‘success’ or ‘religiosity’ seems to be measured in getting people ‘in the doors.’

As might be expected for someone who writes a blog titled Building a Church Without Walls, I think Christianity should be happening just as much outside the doors of the church as within it.

And the problem with the religious institutions that the Americans, and the Irish, and the British, and the rest of Europe don’t seem to trust, is that in so many cases the people in authority inside those institutions haven’t been living like Christians inside or outside of the church.

As Tom Roberts, editor at large for the National Catholic Reporter, says during the NPR broadcast, it is hard to ‘inspire people to be Catholic’ when the ‘institutional’ Catholic Church has not lived up to its own standards of honesty, morality and repentance.

Putting aside whether or not that’s a problem for God, I think it’s a problem that extends beyond those in power in the ‘institutional’ churches.

After all, the ‘institutional’ vs. the ‘non’ or ‘de’-institutional church is a false division, if we really consider each other all part of the Body of Christ.

So this lack of trust is a problem for all Christians, whether they are seeking to reform ailing church institutions, or they are boldly setting out to create new ones in the form of non-denominational churches, emerging churches, Catholic reform groups, or what have you.

(image sourced on Gallup)

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