Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters

By Stephen R. Clark

by Danielle Dolin

 

Churches across the country are failing and closing in astonishing numbers. Their buildings are repurposed as restaurants, offices, or even housing. While these new iterations of the facilities adds back value to the community, much more is still lost. The social services and ministries once provided to the community have evaporated.

This is the reality shared in Reorganized Religion by veteran reporter, Bob Smietana. 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.

Smietana is a reporter. As he points out, he is not a theologian or a sociologist. 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 also dropping. Smietana cites a Faith Communities Today study showing, “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.”

Lifeway Research study based on data from 24 denominations, revealed that in 2019, “4,500 churches shut down, while only 3,000 new churches opened — a net loss of 1,500 churches” for the year.

Statistics such as these fill 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 driving church failure? Two stand out:

Demographics are shifting. Many congregations are white and aging. They are not attracting new people and those who remain are dying. Says Smietana, the world most churches were “built to serve no longer exists and the assumptions that led to the creation of those churches and denominations no longer hold.”

Conflict and controversy are turn-offs. Negative stories such as the fall of Mars Hill, the challenges within the SBC, and more, drive people away and are deterrents to church growth. 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.

COVID also hurt. In an environment where the “habit of churchgoing as a socially prescribed requirement for the good life or a religious obligation” is faltering, even those for whom church waiss “a natural part of the rhythm of their lives” have been disrupted. “For the first time in years,” says Smietana, “people who usually could be found in church pews like clockwork found themselves with new choices of what to do with their Sunday mornings.” For many, these new choices have continued to keep them away from church.

This disruption and dismantling of organized religion is not a good thing. Smietana says, “Despite all its flaws — and they are legion — organized religion can be a source for good in the world.” Organized religion is effective at raising funds for important causes, training and 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.

Smietana explains, “it’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 the book is in story after story that validates the statistics, but also provides examples where all of these challenges are being met successfully.

Buy it here- Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters


Stephen R. Clark is a writer who lives in Lansdale, PA with his wife, BethAnn, where they attend Immanuel Church. His website is www.StephenRayClark.com. He is a member of the Evangelical Press Association and managing editor of the Christian Freelance Writers Network blog. He is also a news writer for The Baptist Paper and his writing has appeared in several publications. A longer version of this review appeared in the Englewood Review of Books and is used with permission.

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