Fifteen years ago, a book written by Robert Putnam entitled Bowling Alone was making the rounds among church leaders. While not necessarily written for churches, its essential premise was extremely attractive to church leaders who strongly identified with the phenomenon Putnam wrote about: namely that people are, by and large, doing more and more activities alone. From their reluctance to become involved in politics, to a hesitancy to serve on community boards and committees, to a disinclination to join any number of civic organizations, churches, and even bowling leagues; people are disengaging from group activities and becoming increasingly isolated in the activities they pursued.
Similarly we have seen a movement toward individual retirement accounts rather than corporate, employer-funded group pension plans. The post-World War II generation of workers tended to stick with one employer for a lifetime. When retirement age came, the company provided a comfortable, livable retirement income. It was an employer owned retirement plan and typically corporation obligated themselves to care for the employees through a benefit package that included surety in old age.
Now retirement accounts are increasingly individually owned. IRAs, Keogh plans, and 401(k) plans are all geared toward individuals taking responsibility for their own retirement accounts. The plans are now portable and funded jointly by employee and employer. And, as most people today are unlikely to work for one employer their entire career, the employee can take the funds with them when they change employers.
As we observe the movement towards individualization, are we in the church at all surprised by an increasing interest in individualized religion? A general disillusionment with established church institutions is growing. Scripture texts are seen as being misrepresented and manipulated to suit one’s own agenda. People in the churches are seen as insincere and out of touch with society. Religious institutions, Christian and non-Christian, struggle amongst themselves and are seen as disingenuous, they are no longer accepted as having an avenue to the truth. More and more people are claiming to be either not affiliated with a church (or other faith tradition) or they claim to be spiritual but not religious.
Church attendance and membership peaked in 1965, but has been in a constant decline since. Fifty years of waning attractiveness is leaving pews empty and institutions wondering where everyone has gone.
This preference for individualization of religion seems to me to be a continuation of a larger phenomenon wherein people are disconnecting with one another and growing more and more isolated.
Has organized religion served its purpose?
When civilizations were first being formed and societies were coming together to live in community with one another, religion brought order. Religion gave people a common belief system and worldview. Religion sought to respect life and bring order out of the chaos. Religion brought a moral code and a higher standard to life by infusing a sense of the sacred across cultural divides and holding up the importance of the sanctity of all life.
The question today is, what happens if or when religious beliefs become individual beliefs rather than corporate beliefs, and stop bringing people into a stronger sense of community? What happens if the trend continues and people gravitate towards a greater sense of isolation?
Personally I believe the need for a stronger sense of community is greater now, precisely when we see the increasing tendency towards individuation. I believe we need a belief structure that brings us together and supports us in community, encourages us to find comfort in one another, and gives the individual hope for a better tomorrow. I believe that is what we do at Hope United Church of Christ.