As the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 approaches, I have been reading articles that discuss how this event has affected the church and people of faith in the U.S.
What do you think?
In general, do you think there have been any significant changes in perspective about the faith here in the U.S. since 9/11?
On a personal level, have you seen any lasting effects in your own spiritual life or in the lives of others you know?
Did your church incorporate any new approaches or ministries after 9/11 that have continued and have proven effective in helping people’s spiritual formation after the tragedy and the way it changed our world?
Here is what some others have been saying.
In terms of general religious trends, John Blake at CNN suggests that there are four observable attitude shifts toward religion in America after 9/11.
1. A chosen nation becomes a humbled one.
Americans, long triumphalist about our place in history and the world, discovered that their sense of specialness and invulnerability was shattered by 9/11. Rev. Thomas Long from Emory University says, “The challenge for every faith tradition is going to be helping people grieve the loss of an image of America that they once had,” he says, “and acquire a modern understanding of ourselves on the world’s stage.”
2. The re-emergence of “Christo-Americanism.”
Americans began to learn more about Islam after 9/11, and in many cases this led to a backlash against all Muslims and a renewed “Christo-Americanism,” which one scholar called, “a distorted form of Christianity that blends nationalism, conservative paranoia and Christian rhetoric.”
3. Interfaith becomes cool.
On the other hand, a new interest in interfaith communication and cooperation arose, especially among young people. Interfaith events have spread across the country. Mosques and temples have held joint worship services. Many college campuses an interfaith dialogue. The Obama White House launched a college interfaith program. “A generation of students is saying that they want to be interfaith leaders, just like previous generations said they wanted to be human rights activists or environmentalists.” (Eboo Patel, Interfaith Youth Core)
4. Atheists come out of the closet.
Voices that speak against religion became louder and more strident after 9/11. Both the terrorist attacks and the “God is on our side” rhetoric of response to which atheists objected “really showed atheists why religion should not be in power. Religion is dangerous, even our own religion,” explains David Silverman, President of American Atheists.
What has been happening with regard to faith and churches in New York City itself? Tobin Perry at The North American Mission Board (SBC) wonders, “Will the 9/11 legacy be a church-planting movement?”
Perry reports that 40% of all churches in Manhattan started after the year 2000. Were the tragic events of 9/11 the catalyst for the church-planting boom in Manhattan? Yes and no, say mission representatives. A great many people returned to the churches and faiths of their past to seek comfort and spiritual perspective in the wake of the terror attacks. However, studies also show that the number of evangelical Christians in Manhattan has tripled since the early 1990’s (from 1% to 3%) and a large number of new churches have been started.
This may be because more people are “seeking God” after 9/11, or it may not. But one thing is clear: “While 9/11 may not have changed the spiritual temperature of New Yorkers, it did focus the attention of the evangelical world on the city.” Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church has started 75 churches throughout the city in the past two decades, and the SBC’s “New Hope New York” effort, begun in 2003, has planted 45 new congregations.
The most recent Barna study suggests that most of the renewed religious activity such as church attendance in the city has taken place since 2004, and thus may or may not be related to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. “Whatever the combination of causes, the residents of the New York City region are more spiritually active, more likely to be ‘churched,’ and more committed to Christ than they were a decade ago,” Barna said.
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Five years ago yesterday the United States was rocked by the unthinkable. Terrorists hit us in the heart, shattering our icons and killing thousands of our innocent citizens. We were stunned. We were heartsick. We were outraged. We were, indeed, terrorized. And, for a while, we were also more interested in God. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there were prayer meetings throughout the land. Church attendance was up. And religious leaders, if they weren’t blaming American immorality for the attacks, were predicting an era of spiritual renewal. Tragedy and death have a way of turning our hearts toward God.
At least for a while. Maybe even a very short while. The Barna Group has recently released the results of an extensive survey of American faith pre-9/11 and five years afterwards. The bottom line? Almost nothing has changed. Americans still believe more or less the same things and do more or less the same things when it comes to religion. The “intense surge in religious activity and expression in the weeks immediately following 9/11” has led to no significant or lasting result, according to the Barna Group.
Honestly, though I find this disappointing, it doesn’t really surprise me much. I’ve spent a good chunk of my pastoral life interacting with people in crisis. Time and again I’ve seen how a crisis can intensify someone’s interest in God, yet not make any long term difference in that person’s faith or religious life.
Roberts cites the Barna report further as it criticizes churches for not being ready to deal with turning the short-term crisis into a long-term ministry of spiritual formation in people’s lives. “Few congregations,” the study noted, “led people to a serious and prolonged period of self-reflection and personal change.”
But Roberts (rightly, in my opinion) observes that this failure was not a matter of being ill-prepared to handle the aftermath of catastrophe. If churches are doing their jobs, times of crisis merely add another dimension to the work the church is always doing.
“Serious and prolonged” attention to spiritual formation is our continual task, not something we take up when public tragedy strikes, in hopes that people will be more open to what we offer. Then, in extraordinary circumstances, we have ministry habits to build upon and a reputation for maturity that will enable us to minister to special needs and discuss specific questions.