May 22, 2005

Congregations in America
Mark Chaves

Spiritual Life, Spiritual Death – As a young boy growing up in the Catholic church, I was taught to sing of my love for the Lord: “Sons of God, hear His holy word, gather ‘round the table of the Lord, eat his body, drink his blood …” Perhaps it was crooning about cannibalism that eventually drove me from the church. Maybe it was the dull, pedestrian, un-engaging repetition of the Mass week after week: the rote recitation of meaningless prayers, the automatic genuflection. For these and other reasons I’ve moved away from practicing religion to studying spirituality, which often feels like a revolutionary act in today’s America – where corporate-media and corporate-politics depend upon a fearful, unthinking populace well-trained in robotic behavior by corporate-religions to continue mindless consumption. This book by Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology at the University of Arizona and a dear friend, offers equal doses of comfort and concern. Drawing on findings from the first-ever National Congregations Survey, Chaves notes that there are more than 300,000 religious congregations in the United States. More than 60 percent of American adults have attended a service within the last year; perhaps as many as 25 percent attend services in any given week. Interestingly, worship, religious education and even the arts are central activities in congregations, involving more people and exhausting more resources than political activities or social service. “For the vast majority of congregations,” Chaves writes, “social services constitute a minor and peripheral aspect of their organizational activities.” He notes: “As with social services, the overall extent to which congregations engage in politics is rather meager.” He adds: “A healthy proportion of all live performance at drama and dance viewed by American adults occurs in congregations’ worship services.” This is all good news for those of us involved in politics – maybe it’s not as bad as we think! – but bad news for those of us involved in the arts – oh no, there goes our audience! Audiences are created, after all; just imagine the kinds of audiences we’re cultivating with the phony drama, plastic music and syrupy emotion found in houses of worship. When you consider that all of this insipid entertainment-disguised-as-religion-disguised-as-entertainment is mounted upon hypocritical codes of behavior, you realize we’re breeding audiences that expect nothing and are shocked by real thought, disturbed by true feeling and outraged by reality. Sadly, the worst is yet to come: Surveys also show that those entering and participating in seminary are less intelligent than their predecessors. Slowly but surely, our audiences will wither. Slowly but surely, religion will smother our spirit.


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