In his address to the Diocesan Convention this past October, Bishop Marc mentioned a figure that surprised me, and I have repeated it to a few people who seemed similarly surprised. He said that according to studies of such matters, 92% of the population of the Bay Area claim no religious affiliation. This makes it the second highest rate of non-affiliation in the country (I don’t know who’s number 1!).
On the one hand, this statistic is a bit depressing and dispiriting for those of us who are interested in keeping our churches vital, alive places. On the other hand, it also presents us with a huge opportunity — and a huge challenge.
While the Bay Area is way ahead of the curve in terms of people’s lack of religious connection, studies do tell us that the country as a whole is experiencing a decline in religiosity, as measured by both claims of religious affiliation and actual attendance at religious services. Some people look toward Europe, where religious affiliation rates are like or even worse than they are in the Bay Area, and wonder if that is where we are ultimately headed: to a society where religion is irrelevant to the daily lives of almost everyone.
At the same time, however, studies also show us that, unlike Europe, huge numbers — the vast majority — of Americans say that they believe in God, thereby suggesting that spirituality is important to most of us in some sense. Clearly, at this moment in American life, there is a disconnect between interest in God and the spiritual and the institutions that are dedicated to God and the spiritual.
All of this suggests to me that there is great opportunity for us, if we can tap into the spiritual longings that most people still have. The great challenge, as a church, is to find an intersection of relevance between that longing and our life as a community of faith.
Having served congregations in the Midwest and the Southeast before coming to the Bay Area, it is clear that churches here are much more in touch with this reality than is the case in most other regions of the country. If we can act on that awareness, and take seriously where most people around us are in terms of both their spiritual longing and skepticism of religious institutions, then we may well discover the formula that will allow us to grow and to continue to have a vital and vibrant life.
Some Archbishop of Canterbury — I can’t quite find which one — once said that the church exists for those who are not yet a part of it. That is perhaps an overstatement, but it does make an important point: that we, as church, can never forget the spiritual needs of those outside our fellowship, and even Episcopalians have a sacred obligation to do what we can to reach them and share what we have found to be powerful and transformative in our lives. Most people in our area have no spiritual home, and no awareness of the riches of our tradition. I think we can be that place for some of them, if we are willing to become not only a radically welcoming church, but a radically invitational one, as well.