In addition to being a pastor, I have a Ph.D in religion, with an emphasis in homiletics (preaching) and social ethics. But as I watch the many crises affecting churches and academia, sometimes it feels like I did an incredible amount of work to get a degree in shoeing horses. There just aren’t a lot of jobs for farriers these days. It’s a niche occupation.
I don’t think religion will ever be obsolete. But I do think religious institutions, and the clergy who maintain them (my online friend David Dark refers to clergy as “professional god-talkers”) will become more rare in the coming years. In addition to all the evidence of plummeting church participation, churches are polarized and splitting. There is a well-documented trend of pastors burning out and giving up, especially during COVID. I’ve felt it, too, that sense of hopeless dread. This is a hard season in which to try to build or maintain a religious community.
As a society, I’d argue that in many ways, we’re becoming more religious. Back in the 1960’s, the General Social Survey reported that only 22% of Americans said they’d had a life-changing spiritual or mystical experience. By 2009, according to a Pew Religion and Public Life survey, it was nearly half of all Americans. Spiritual experience increased even as church participation decreased.
Some of this may have to do with the growth of a population who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In the sociological research, they are often described as “SBNRs.” Twenty years ago in his book After the Baby Boomers, sociologist Robert Wuthnow described what younger generations did as “spiritual bricolage,” sampling from multiple streams of faith traditions.
In many ways, I feel like the work I did to earn a Ph.D in religion prepared me to have a ringside seat at this period of the Great Emergence, to observe of this work of spiritual bricolage as an anthropologist might.
Even though church and academy are struggling, on my good days, I don’t feel that my effort in church or academia has been wasted. I didn’t go into ministry for the career advancement opportunities — I did it because I love God and I love people. And I didn’t go into academia so I could fight to earn a tenure-track position — I did it because I love learning. That’s why I proposed the trip I’m about to share with you: Navigating Uncharted Waters. If you’ve signed up for these devotionals, that probably means you do, too. This moment in history calls for people who love God, love people, and love learning.
Thanks for joining me on this journey.
Prayer: God, you who are both hidden and revealed, reveal to us the path toward truth and life. Amen.
—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.