I got a text this morning telling me that the seminary I attended is closing its doors.
That’s not surprising. The school was started almost as an experiment. It was founded by a bunch of liberal Baptists (a rare species, that) in the South as a place dedicated to inclusive, free thinking. Most of the initial cohort of faculty members had been fired by other seminaries for being too liberal. The seminary rented an old house that was converted into classroom space.
And the story is that at the first chapel service, the communion officiant meant to say, “Take the cup and pass it to the person next to you,” but instead inverted some vowels and said, “Take the cup and piss at to the person next to you.”
Hardly a stable beginning.
But still, my diploma (which is in a box somewhere) looks so official, so lasting. We kind of think that institutions of higher education are permanent.
But they’re not. Institutions of all kinds are changing. Especially religious-related institutions.
Congregations all across the country are closing their doors. The mammoth Crystal Cathedral shut its doors in 2013. In 2016, three Baptist churches in Marshall, Texas, merged together because they were no longer viable apart. More than 1000 Roman Catholic parishes across the country have closed since 1995. In 2012, Temple Sinai in Sumter, South Carolina closed. It was founded in 1815; the building is now a museum.
Religious life in America is changing. Fewer people take part in religious services. The people who do take part, show up less frequently. People are giving less and volunteering to be active less. In 2012, 19% of Americans said they were spiritual but not religious. In 2017 that number had increased to 27%.
There are many reasons for those changes. Here are nine:
1. Social expectation and pressures have lightened. People used to go to church because they felt guilty if they didn’t. Guilt is out of fashion.
2. Church is no longer the best (or only) show in town. Sport events take place on Sundays. Stores are open on Sundays. That hasn’t always been the case.
3. Increased mobility. People travel more. Affluence lets us gas up our cars and take our kid's travel soccer team to another state or head to the beach for the weekend.
4. Weekend work. More businesses are open on Sunday than 30 years ago. And working remotely means that a Sabbath can be spent responding to email rather then resting or praying.
5. Globalism. With the click of a mouse, a person raised a Baptist in East Texas can “become” Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim. Plus, a good TED Talk online can be far more meaningful than a boring sermon in person.
6. People need a day to do nothing. Dual-income, stressed-out, over-scheduled families need some time to sleep late, do the laundry, pay the bills, and go eat at Denny’s.
7. Individualism. “Do what you want, think what you want, believe what you want.” Those are things we say to each other. It’s not surprise, then, when someone says, “Okay, I’ll stay home and be a ‘Lone Ranger Christian.’”
8. Burn out with no spiritual growth. Religious groups have worked people hard in the past and people experienced little benefit.
9. Scandal and Politics. Sexual abuse scandals, televangelist scandals, and the close identity of religion with political parties are turn offs to many people.
I probably stole these ideas from other writers over the years. (Sorry about that.) And I’ve observed them in my own work as the minister of liberal churches. These ideas--and a host of other factors--helped my experimental little seminary go out of business. Change happens. Institutions shut down. Churches close. Roads twist. Life evolves.
Let me steal another idea. Theologian and writer Diana Butler Bass has written about changing religious life. Bass says (in her book, Grounded, I think) that religious people have a choice—They (we?) can be inconsolable mourners at the graveside of dead religious institutions. Or, they (we?) can be expectant midwives at the places where new things are being born.