A Pew survey released just two days before Christmas reveals that people active in churches, mosques and synagogues are more involved in different organizations and devote more time to them compared to those who are not actively religious.
This doesn’t surprise me. For the past 10 years, research by United Methodist Communications has consistently identified a desire among a significant number of people in the United States, especially young people, to connect with others who want to make a difference in the world. They also want to be part of something larger than themselves, something global. And this is a spiritual quest.
There is ample evidence that when given the opportunity to fulfill this desire through outward bound service, they will take it and run with it.
A missed opportunity
Most religions teach concern for others and provide the means for followers to act on the teaching. Service to others is a core precept of the Abrahamic faiths, for example, so it’s likely those who follow these religions would engage in outward expressions of their faith.
However, many, including mainline Protestants, have not done well articulating this appealing attribute in ways that make them inviting to those seeking a more vibrant expression of faith. Some denominations lost their capacity to communicate their relevance when they disengaged from the media environment that has become the world in which we live and move today. That’s a pity because they have what many are seeking, and it can make a difference in people’s lives.
Having an impact
Reporting on the Pew research, the Christian Science Monitor says the actively religious are also likely to feel better about their place in society and to be more trusting and optimistic about their impact on society.
My hunch is that connection to a religious community serves as a way to step outside the hyper-individualism prevalent in modern societies and that religious activity functions as a form of empowerment. It’s been my experience that when people organize around shared moral convictions and act compassionately, such as building Habitat houses, advocating for just and humane social policies, or volunteering as tutors in urban schools (among many other social activities), we experience both a stronger connection to others and a sense of purpose that results in awareness that we can make a difference in the world.
In religious language, we discover we belong to God and to one another. The entryway to deeper spiritual understanding is through giving yourself to a larger purpose than what is offered in a secularized, consumerized material culture.
I heard a moving witness to this at an event called Advocacy Days for Imagine No Malaria, in Washington, D.C. After meeting with legislators to advocate for preserving discretionary items in the federal budget, including funding for malaria prevention, a woman told other participants in the program that she felt renewed faith in the democratic system, a greater sense of personal empowerment and a deeper commitment to her faith. I hope she felt accomplishment when many of the programs for which she advocated were retained in the budget legislation that was passed a few days ago. With others in the group, combined with advocates from religious communities across the country, she did, in fact, make a difference.
Our call to action
I believe faithfulness is best expressed by our compassion. Jesus instructed his followers to act compassionately toward those who were among the least in society. That call to action has been a basic precept of Christian faith throughout the ages.
It’s been said that religious belief is personal but not private. The Pew research seems to confirm it, and perhaps it reveals more: Religious faith is not only about what we believe; it’s also about how we live.