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More Americans tailoring religion to fit their needs

If World War II-era warbler Kate Smith sang today, her anthem could be Gods Bless America.

That's one of the key findings in newly released research that reveals America's drift from clearly defined religious denominations to faiths cut to fit personal preferences.

The folks who make up God as they go are side-by-side with self-proclaimed believers who claim the Christian label but shed their ties to traditional beliefs and practices. Religion statistics expert George Barna says, with a wry hint of exaggeration, America is headed for "310 million people with 310 million religions."

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Barna's new book on U.S. Christians, Futurecast, tracks changes from 1991 to 2011, in annual national surveys of 1,000 to 1,600 U.S. adults. All the major trend lines of religious belief and behavior he measured ran downward — except two

More people claim they have accepted Jesus as their savior and expect to go to heaven.

And more say they haven't been to church in the past six months except for special occasions such as weddings or funerals. In 1991, 24% were "unchurched." Today, it's 37% .

Barna blames pastors for those oddly contradictory findings. Everyone hears, "Jesus is the answer. Embrace him. Say this little Sinners Prayer and keep coming back. It doesn't work. People end up bored, burned out and empty," he says. "They look at church and wonder, 'Jesus died for this?'"

The consequence, Barna says, is that, for every subgroup of religion, race, gender, age and region of the country, the important markers of religious connection are fracturing.

When he measures people by their belief in seven essential doctrines, defined by the National Association of Evangelicals' Statement of Faith, only 7% of those surveyed qualified.

Barna laments, "People say, 'I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.'"

LifeWay Research reinforces those findings: A new survey of 900 U.S. Protestant pastors finds 62% predict the importance of being identified with a denomination will diminish over the next 10 years.

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Sociologist Robert Bellah first saw this phenomenon emerging in the 1980s. In a book he co-authored, Habits of the Heart, he introduces Sheila, a woman who represents this.

Sheila says: "I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice. … It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other."

Bellah, now professor emeritus at University of California-Berkeley, says, "Sheila was a jolt to some at the time. But to a lot of people, it wasn't a jolt at all, they had been living that way for a while. Don't romanticize the past. Fervent religiosity was always in the minority. Just because people showed up in church didn't always mean a deep personal conviction or commitment."

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From The Urantia Book:

99:5.9 Primitive man made little effort to put his religious convictions into words. His religion was danced out rather than thought out. Modern men have thought out many creeds and created many tests of religious faith. Future religionists must live out their religion, dedicate themselves to the wholehearted service of the brotherhood of man. It is high time that man had a religious experience so personal and so sublime that it could be realized and expressed only by “feelings that lie too deep for words.”

See also Truthbook's study on the Religion of Personal Spiritual Experience

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