Faith for the 21st Century

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the
United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, one of the leading churches in the
denomination, told the Nebraska Annual Conference the church is well-positioned
by theology and social commitment to address the needs of people in the 21st.
Century.
(revised June 10, 8:00 a.m. CDT)

The mainline churches are not dead and at least one is well-positioned to experience significant renewal in the 21st. Century, according to The Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City. Hamilton related conversations he had with two young persons in the past week as anecdotes illustrating his belief in the capacity of the church to turn around. He spoke to the Nebraska Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, meeting in Omaha, June 8-11.

Hamilton said one young man had been turned off by the public debate that has identified the voice of the religious right as representative of Christianity. Upon learning that the right is only one voice among many, and that there are alternative voices represented in the mainline churches, the young man expressed willingness to consider the church, Hamilton said.

This is consistent with research United Methodist Communications has done in preparation for the second four-year expression of the media and welcoming campaign known as Igniting Ministry. Young persons who are searching for a spiritual connection told researchers they desire a community of persons who are authentic in accepting everyone. Authenticity is marked by the willingness to accept all people, if that’s the claim that you make.

They also said they’re not looking for literal interpretation of the Bible. It seems they are saying they live in a more complex and vexing environment than can be contained in a system of belief that is inflexible.

Other findings extracted from this research, which includes individuals age 25-54 and was conducted through online surveys, focus groups and telephone interviews by Harris International and the Barna Group, include these concerns:

  • The respondents expressed a desire for a church community that is tolerant and non-judgmental;
  • where they can feel welcome and comfortable;
  • that helps them to feel good about themselves after attending worship;
  • that offers training and deeper interpretation of the Bible, but does not interpret the Bible literally;
  • that offers one-to-one time with the pastor to sort out answers to questions about personal faith and needs;
  • that is substantial in worship, not ritualistic.

My interpretation of this data is this. People seemed to be telling the interviewers that they desire relationships and experiences that assist them to put their life experiences into a consistent moral vision of meaning and purpose. They live in a world of options, often experiencing complex and competing claims for time, attention and commitment. They want to face this complexity and competition by living a life that is meaningful and purposeful, within relationships that are supportive and make them feel better about themselves.

Read below the surface of these hopes and there is a damning critique of the consumer culture in which we live. It is creating desires it cannot meet, and folks seem to know this.

They also seem to be saying that their lives are more complicated than can be contained in fixed, limiting teachings that are absolute. So the public debate about black and white morality that characterizes so much of the important issues of the culture wars has created skepticism among many of these folks. They are saying life isn’t that simple and can’t be reduced to absolute moral stands when complexity and uncertainty are so obvious. They’d like a chance to discuss these things in depth with a trained person who can provide biblical understanding.

These findings–even in their preliminary form–say something is percolating in the search for a meaningful faith in the 21st. Century. It’s an interesting time to be involved in communications and ministry and humanitarian engagement. I can speculate that those denominations that address these concerns with flexibility, function and intellectual honesty will find a favorable hearing. I can also wonder if the current public dialogue about faith is demonstrating this approach or if it’s turning people off.

The public response to the Terri Schiavo tragedy, stem cell research and the tsunami, reveal more complicated and textured attitudes in the U.S. toward major moral issues and global commitments than the simplistic distillations that are expressed by the doctrinaire right. How these various voices find expression and support remains a challenge because the mainline churches haven’t found their voice just yet. When they do, and when they figure out how to work with this unformed reservoir of interest and goodwill, look out. I believe the seeds for renewal are being planted.

I’m writing this post using qualifiers because I haven’t reviewed the data in-depth and processed it as completely as I will in the future. But it’s reliable data and I’m not not concerned about its integrity. I’ll be writing more on this as I, and others, review it and put it into manageable context.

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