As I’ve already mentioned, dealing with the changing religious landscape is one of the key questions facing ICPJ for our future.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a groundbreaking study on the US Religious Landscape.
It’s loaded with fascinating findings, but one in particular is the growing segment of people who are unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition:
The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.
These has dramatic impacts for groups doing congregation-based organizing like ICPJ.
The ground that we’ve stood on as an organization for 43 years is eroding. Congregations are less and less the the basis for spiritual fulfillment for Americans. And considering the declining membership in mainline congregations, this basis is even more imperiled.
I see three possible responses to this change:
- Ignore it, at least for now. We’re still doing okay. We still have a good fundraising base and health congregation support. We can ride this horse for a while before it gives out on us.
- Be part of a revival of congregations. There’s a credible story to tell that congregations have an important role in sustaining activism and spiritual fulfillment. If we help tell this story, it could help reinvigorate our partner congregations.
- Shift our focus from “religious” activists to “spiritual” activists. Instead of fighting or ignoring the trends, we could ride with them. This would expand our tent, and it would also challenge us to update our language and habits to embrace both formally religious people and informally spiritual people. That’s a tall order, but I think we’re up to it.
Ignoring the shifts is our default position, but I don’t think it’s viable in the long-term.
I find the second option alluring, but I don’t think it’s realistic. I We may be able to have some regeneration effect for religious communities. It is also tricky. We can’t say to people “congregations can help feed your soul and sustain your activism” if our partner congregations are either spiritually dead or hesitant around activism.
I tend to think option three has the most promise, but I’ll be honest, I get nervous thinking about how to navigate the ambiguities of that position. In the short term, it risks alienating our congregation-based core support without attracting large numbers of new supporters.