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The Promise of an Empty Church
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In the fall of 2022, Rishi Sunak became the first Hindu prime minister of Great Britain. Sunak was not the first non-Christian prime minister (that honor went to Benjamin Disraeli, the first Jewish prime minister who served in the nineteenth century), but to much of the British media, Sunak’s rise was nonetheless the latest sign of the fading power of Christianity—particularly the Anglican Church—in the United Kingdom.
Statistics do seem to support their concerns. The 2011 British census recorded that only seventeen percent of British people reported that they were Anglican. According to the 2005-2015 British Church Statistics survey, only five percent of the British population attended a Christian worship service on Sundays, and only about ten percent were formally enrolled members of a Christian church.
All of this might sound familiar to Americans. Warnings that declining attendance at Church and declining numbers of Christian believers will negatively affect American social and cultural life abound. At times, Latter-day Saint leaders have joined in such warnings.
But it is also possible to see the empty church not as a sign of failure, but a space for opportunity. The decline of attendance at churches is a call to reimagine what being religious could be. Those who are not attending church have overwhelmingly not abandoned what we might call religion, broadly defined. They are pursuing different routes to familiar ends—meaning, community, and connection to the divine. Rather than fearing the empty church then, we might approach the decline of affiliation with organized religion in a hopeful way. As Gordon B. Hinckley once said, “Bring all the good that you have and let us see if we can add to it.” What we might come away with is a richer and fuller way of imagining what religion is and new ways to vitalize the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The decline of church attendance in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s provoked some of the first worries among Latter-day Saint leaders about declining church attendance in the West. In the summer of 1971, Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles traveled to Great Britain to visit missionaries and local members. Upon his return, he described to the General Conference of the Church what had disturbed him most about his travels. “It has been frightening to me to see the churches closed, boarded up, with weeds growing in the yard, or open but empty,” Packer said. Twenty years later, Roy Doxey of the Quorum of the Seventy similarly worried about the decline of British Christianity and linked it to declining morals: “As the churches are emptying, the prisons are filling.”
Scholars of religion call the pattern these Church leaders saw in the United Kingdom—and feared in the United States—the “secularization thesis.” The secularization thesis proposes that the modern world, with its spread of capitalism, large scale bureaucracy, hedonistic consumerism, and widespread reverence for science inevitably undermines religion. As all of these things advance, religion will get squeezed out.
Many American Christians see this story happening all around them. To them it is frightening. Albert Mohler, one of the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States, warned of the “continuing grip of secularism on the society and the fact that the secular surge is going to seek to snuff out and to eliminate just about every strong religious argument or every institution formed on strong religious convictions.”
There is some truth to this. The marketplace does not care if you do not want to work on Sunday. Consumerism promises you that you will find fulfillment through buying things, not through self-discipline or self-denial. And we are ceaselessly told that “science” and “religion” are inherently in conflict. According to secularization theorists, people living in modern societies will inevitably stop attending church and stop believing in God. And it is hard to deny that on some level, they are right. At least on the first point.
But what about the second point? We cannot simply take attendance or even membership in a church as the sole metric of what it means to be religious. Nor can we assume that the only alternative to strong church attendance is the absence of religion. Easy dichotomies—“religious vs. secular” or “religion vs. science” or “church attendance vs. nonreligious”—are simply not enough to comprehend what is actually happening in the Christian world.
For one thing, it is worth noting that in 1930, only thirty percent of Britons were church members, compared with eleven percent today. There was never a golden age of church participation in British society. Thomas Alexander has documented a similar reality in Latter-day Saint history. Before World War II, attendance at LDS sacrament meetings was low enough to be shocking to Church members today, with percentages hovering in the teens. This was not because these people were not religious; it was because that particular sort of institutional participation was not understood to be the key factor in determining whether or not you were religious. Among early Latter-day Saints, one might participate in Relief Society activities or pay tithes or volunteer on Church projects—but not attend sacrament meeting.
We confront a similar world today. In Britain, for instance, those same surveys that show low church attendance reveal that sixty percent of British people still claim to be Christian. This presents us with a conundrum. We might assume that these people claiming to be Christian despite not attending churches are somehow not really Christian. Or we might ask what it means to them to say that they are Christian despite not attending church.
There is more. Only thirty-eight percent of British people claim they do not believe in God or a higher power. In 2009, half of British people reported that they believed in guardian angels. Twenty percent of those who said they believe they have a spiritual protector also claimed not to believe in God. Half of British people say they pray. Seventy-seven percent say they participate in Nativity plays at Christmas.
What to make of all of this? It is hard, given such reports of activities and beliefs, to say that the ninety-five percent of British people who do not attend church on Sundays are “secular” or “non-religious.” There are similar dynamics in the United States. Researchers Gregory Smith, Becka Alper, Jessica Martinez, Clare Gecewicz and Elizabeth Sciupac, who wrote The Pew Research Center’s 2014 US Religious Landscape survey found, famously, that when asked about their religious affiliation, twenty-three percent of Americans qualified as “nones,” including sixteen percent who claimed they were “nothing in particular.”
But these “nones” are largely not atheist, or even, perhaps, agnostic. Nine in ten Black nones claim to believe in God or a higher power. Half pray, according to the Pew survey. Of the nones of all races, roughly sixty percent say that they believe in God, a third pray, and a quarter attend church at least a few times a year. Roughly half of the nones believe in psychic power, reincarnation, and astrology, and nearly two-thirds believe that “spiritual energy” affects the physical world. Use of tarot cards and other divination rituals are spiking among the nones who are millennials and Generation Z. Indeed, according to the Springtide Research Institute, seventy percent of young Latter-day Saints are familiar with or even use tarot.
What we see here, then, is that the actual world today offers a revision to the secularization thesis. Rather than assuming that secularization means a collapse of affiliation and interest in religion, we might instead say that “secularization” means a growing diversity of belief, practices, and expectations surrounding the idea of “religion” in the western world. The young Latter-day Saints practicing tarot—like the the agnostics who pray or the non-attending Christians who believe in astrology—are not abandoning what we might call “Mormonism” in the broad sense. They remain, to use a classic word in religious studies, “seekers”—those who are expressing spiritual hunger and desire for the compass and the satisfaction that spiritual practice brings.
What is changing is that they are finding it in places other than those the Saints of the late twentieth century did—outside the regular patterns of Sunday worship. Same longings, different cultural forms. This presents to the Church at least two options. The first is simply to resist. This option assumes the Church’s present functions and structures are timeless and universal. It maintains that our patterns of devotion and piety—our modes of prayer, our Sunday classes, our forms of music—possess in their current status unique power that would be diluted if they were too much changed. This option might allow for certain tweaks. Contemporary music, perhaps. But overall, this option will continue to imagine that the Church must remain a church in the traditional American sense, with hymns, congregational worship, a Sunday school, and so on.
Another option, though, might be to conceive the concept of religion differently. Inspired by President Hinckley’s words, we might invite seekers to bring their good to us, so we might learn from each other. Young people, the nones, are telling pollsters they are “spiritual but not religious” because they identify “religion” with “churches”—and they don’t like churches. But that doesn’t mean they don’t like religion. We have seen much evidence that they still pray; they still look to the universe with wonder; they still seek guidance and education.
How might we reconceptualize our faith in such a way that we might show them the glory and the possibilities within it?
Here, the Church might find inspiration in other Christian movements that are finding ways to identify Christianity with life and activities beyond the idea of the “church” itself. According to scholar Melanie Ross, the evangelical Vineyard movement, for instance, sought to wed a traditionally Christian theology to a more eclectic and diverse conceptualization of worship. Vineyard churches meet in traditional congregations, to be sure, but they also have a wide variety of other activities, from small-scale scripture study groups to activist service groups to living room worship services of one or two families. We see some trends like this, of course, occurring in the LDS church already. We might seek to embrace and validate all the reasons one might come to a ward. Perhaps they want community. Perhaps they want to support their family. Perhaps they have no belief, but simply hope. Perhaps they come with dyed hair and tattoos. Perhaps they come in shorts. Perhaps they have nose rings. We might come to imagine what it means to be a church as less a Protestant denomination like the Church of England, with clear demarcations of membership and borders to be enforced, and more as a great, sprawling family, in which we welcome our odd cousins and black sheep siblings and find that, in turn, we are also invited to birthday parties with psychics and astrologers, where we ourselves become the black sheep—but are invited because we are family.
Of course, a family is what our ordinances and scriptures tell us that the Church is supposed to be. Perhaps empty churches are gesturing us toward the home.
Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith” and the forthcoming “The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters and the Fragmentation of America.”