TEXAS FAITH: The future of religion in America

William Lawrence, dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology, addresses a question from the Texas Faith blog of The Dallas Morning News: "How do you see the future for religion in America, especially the communal aspect?"

By Bill McKenzie
Editorial Columnist

Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor-in-chief, has written a new book, God is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America. One of his main conclusions deals with the communal aspect of religion. Here’s what the public opinion analyst writes about the data his organization has collected:

“The religion of tomorrow may increasingly emphasize informal aspects of community and less hierarchy. Growth will come to branded churches to the extent that they emulate nondenominational approaches and highlight community, togetherness, and social fabric ties. Religious leaders will recognize that the social lives of today’s potential parishioners are more and more involved with ad hoc groupings, informal networking, and interaction with those who share affinities. Americans will increasingly recognize that the social and community aspects of religion are very valuable.”

Here, then, is the question for discussion:

How do you see the future for religion in America, especially the communal aspect? If Newport is right, how do you see your tradition adapting to the religion of tomorrow?

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

In some societies where religion has a significant place in the social order (which is to say in most nations not named North Korea), there are two basic approaches to religion.

One is the establishment of an authoritative religion, with varying degrees of tolerance for other religions than the official one. The other is an open system that is equally tolerant of all (or almost all) religions.

Examples of the first range from England, with its official Anglican Church but with substantial room for other traditions, to Israel or Saudi Arabia, with their official religious identities and a little (or almost no) room for non-established religions. Examples of the second include India and the United States, where one religion tends to be the provider of patterns that dominate the social order, but there is plenty or room for others to be accepted.

Informal religious patterns tend to rely on the existence of more formally structured religious systems to provide a context in which an independent or free-form religious community can emerge. The formal systems foster patterns of calendars, rituals, practices, and leadership within which the informal emergents can serve as renewal movements or against which they can rebel. Informal bodies will always exist. They will emerge from time to time and demonstrate greater or lesser intensity. But without some formal structures within which to be sheltered or against which to rebel, the informal emergents have to develop their own formal systems or they will fade away.

Methodism, for instance, began as a renewal movement in the Church of England. But it only flourished when it founded its own institutional forms. Whether today’s Methodists will be energized by or succeeded by one of its own renewal movements remains to be seen.

But organized Methodism will need more energy than it has now if it is to endure in a world that openly tolerates all religions (where only the fittest endure) or a world in which dissenting bodies will need great courage to survive a hostile establishment of faith.


Read the full blog.

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