“Its a typical situation in these typical times —
Too many choices…”
- Dave Matthews
“In a world of choice, obligatory religions are not faring well.”
- Diana Butler Bass
Christianity After Religion
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Diana Butler Bass once asked an executive of a coffee company how many choices were possible in one of his stores. He said there were nearly 82,000 possibilities for a drink from the menu. I drink my coffee black, but there are apparently 81,999 other choices.
Are you telling me that life and human behavior is just as it ever was?
Are you telling me that a mundane fact like this hasn’t changed the world?
I’d like to posit something very banal here today with regard to our discussion on “Losing Our Religion.” I think a big part of why we are seeing people move away from organized religion in the U.S. is really quite simple. Are you ready? Here it is:
Today, people have choices.
Choices, choices, and more choices. In my opinion, churches in the United States have not adequately reckoned with the fact that we live in a new world, a world dramatically different than it was fifty years ago. Today we live a world of virtually unlimited choices and options.
We’ve come so far that we can hardly fathom a culture like it was when I was a child — when there were just three television channels, three car companies, only a few places where one could find fast food, and hardly anything was open on Sundays. People listened to AM radio (only) and got their news at certain times of the day when the newspaper arrived or a news program was broadcast on TV. If you stayed up past midnight, there was nothing to watch but a static test pattern. Communication was nowhere near instantaneous and the means of communication were few and fixed — land line phone, letter, face to face.
Shopping choices were limited (no malls! no big box stores! few national chains! no Amazon.com!). Eating out options were limited, information access was limited, and entertainment choices were limited. Heck, the only diet soda was Tab (yuck!), and when you ordered coffee you got it black, or with cream and/or sugar.
Even the possibilities for where and how one might worship or practice one’s religion were limited. Churches and other religious institutions were more likely to be based on historic traditions and practices than on the “felt needs” or consumer preferences of the community. More people lived in communities where there were certain expectations about religious practice, so there were pressures of obligation that constrained one’s comfort in making alternate choices. And there certainly weren’t as many options on a Sunday for Christians to choose.
However, today people have choices like they’ve never had before. These choices are available because of many factors, but I think three are foremost:
Before the automobile and other forms of modern transportation, along with the infrastructure that supports them such as the interstate highway system developed a half century ago, it was not possible for mass numbers of people to be as mobile as they have been since. We Americans pulled up our roots, restructured our lives around the car, hit the road, and never looked back.
Advances in technology sent people packing to the cities for work. Result: the urbanization and suburbanization of our culture.
Advances in technology made the modern media age possible, with its instant and constant flow of information and communication, along with an almost unlimited variety of entertainment options. I can remember when people used to say that “TV killed the Sunday evening church service,” and I believe it. Choice brings change. People behave differently when they have choices. If they have options, they won’t always choose the ones you think they should.
Advances in technology made the “sexual revolution” possible. Would our culture’s relaxation (some would say “abandonment”) of sexual mores have happened as it did without the pill? Would pornography be as pervasive without the development of video and other media and the internet? Would phenomena such as widespread divorce be as prevalent if we didn’t have the mobility we have in our culture to move about and relocate so easily?
Now listen up: Of course, technology has made our lives better in a multitude of ways. I’m not casting judgment on progress or saying that we all have to imitate the Amish or go back to Little House on the Prairie days to turn these trends around. All I’m saying is that when we wring our hands about how the world is going down the tubes, we lay the blame on all kinds of esoteric or pernicious things. However, in reality, a big part of the reason can be found in commonplace changes, brought about by remarkable advances that have affected the way you and I approach life.
When you get in the way of a big wave, it’s going to sweep you along with it. And suddenly, you won’t be in the same place you were before. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Advances in technology and our good use of those advances have made us the most affluent nation the world has ever known. Sure, we have our economic challenges, but our standard of living is unrivaled, and a vast number of people today are therefore free to make lifestyle choices unheard of in the past.
Here in our free society, advances in technology and our resulting affluence have led to increased possibilities in personal freedom. I’m no longer bound as tightly by limitations and circumstances. Opportunities are everywhere and more accessible to more people. I’m empowered to do more things on my own, to go more places, to purchase more goods, to participate in more activities, to make more choices for myself.
So, for example, I simply don’t have to go to church anymore. I have a greater power to choose. Like most of us, I probably no longer live in a community where I am bound in close relationships with extended family and friends that exert the pressure of obligation on me. Free from that, I can do most anything I want on Sunday. Technology and affluence have given me many, many choices.
I can travel. I can stay home and watch TV or go to the football game. I can go to any one of a dozen restaurants and have brunch with friends. I can catch up on my work at home on my computer. I can go to the store and shop on Sunday because, with everything that’s available and all the different choices people have about their schedules and lifestyles, it doesn’t make economic sense for stores to close on the “Sabbath” anymore. Also, if I want to, I can still worship with a DVD, watch a preacher on TV, do an internet Bible study, listen to a “spiritual” playlist on my iPod, and have “fellowship” texting with my friends or interacting with others on a blog (!) or on Facebook.
The vast majority of us have many, many more options in life than people had in previous generations. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “Americans, even those of modest means, exercise more choices in a single day than some of our ancestors did in a month or perhaps even a year.”
Or to make it personal, she quotes one man she met as saying, “My life is full without church; it seems kind of irrelevant.”
I suggest that this, my friends, is the challenge for churches today and in the future. Some of the most fundamental reasons for the decline of religion in today’s U.S. society are remarkably natural and banal. There are other reasons, of course, but we mustn’t downplay the strength of the commonplace cultural currents that have transformed the way people live, communicate, move about, and decide what to do with their free time.
Because of advancements in technology and our affluence, we have arrived at a level of personal freedom that gives people a vast array of choices about how to live their lives. More and more of them are not choosing religious ways — at least in the fashion that they are being offered to them.
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Next Time: Helpful and unhelpful ways to deal with this challenge.