Does your kid really care about church?

Whenever Pew releases another study on religious habits there’s always plenty of juicy details that don’t necessarily come out in the headlines. This month’s study has a few funny conclusions, and a few eyebrow-raisers, too.

It probably isn’t a surprise that both teens and parents think the other cares more about religion than they do. On both sides, the parents and children overestimated how important religion is to the other. That doesn’t seem too surprising; parents probably assume their kids’ faith is important aspirationally, while children probably perceive a greater importance because parents are making it a point to pass that faith along. When there are differences between teens and parents, it tends to be the teens who are less religious; again, not a surprise in a world where younger people tend to be overwhelmingly less religious than their elders.

It’s also not surprising that children overwhelmingly share their parents’ religion. Other research demonstrates that, when people leave the church, they tend to do so from 18-35. Of course, living under the influence of a parent and having little autonomy, a teen’s sense of faith is going to be almost completely guided by their parent’s.

Then there’s this little quirk:

Within the broad Protestant category, however, there are stark differences. Eight-in-ten parents who affiliate with an evangelical Protestant denomination have a teen who also identifies as an evangelical Protestant. But among parents who belong to mainline Protestant denominations such as the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 55% have a teen who identifies in the same way – and 24% have a teen who is unaffiliated.

Why is it that evangelicals teens are more likely to identify with their parents’ religion? Is there something about the fire-and-brimstone consequences that makes them more likely to stay involved? Or is there something less engaging about “mainline” denominations?

Also notable is the trend among teens towards a relativistic or pluralistic view of religion. Excepting the evangelicals, a slight majority of religious teens believe that “many religions may be true,” a marked change from the historical concept of religion. It seems to indicate a future in which religious conflict is tempered by an understanding that truth may take many forms, or perhaps indicates an abandonment of objective truth that might make it difficult for any two people to agree on something.

What happened to online church?

Are you still going to church? Virtually, I mean. Some places are holding physically distant, reduced capacity meetings, of course. Some have experimented with outdoor services, although winter is coming quickly. But the majority of churches are still holding online, virtual services. The people, though, are giving up.

The research from the Barna Group in June gave a pretty shocking picture of the state of faith in America. About half of people were still “attending” virtual church, less than a third were engaging with church leadership, less than 15% were participating in a discussion group or bible study. It isn’t a surprise that people wouldn’t immediately embrace this unusual method of churchgoing, but the shocking part about these statistics is that they are amongst regular churchgoers! That means, even within the church’s most devoted followers, membership is waning in an unprecedented way.

Personally, I was pretty committed to regular Sunday viewing in the spring and early summer. I was definitely one of the “hoppers” that the research mentions, switching freely between several services at congregations which I wouldn’t normally attend. The incredible ease of access to a variety of churches made “attending” different services fun and novel. I would switch between several live, or watch portions of other churches’ later in the day.

That has slowly dwindled, and now I find myself zipping past Sunday without even thinking about booting up a live stream. The incredible variety of online services available was also its undoing: although I enjoyed getting to experience each church’s take on virtual service early on, after several weeks I wasn’t engaged enough to continue. There is only so much novelty a virtual service can offer, after all, and by simply passively watching I wasn’t really engaging with any one church.

I wonder how much the numbers have fallen off since June. One can only assume that my personal experience mirrors a trend. One also has to wonder how this will change churchgoing in the future; it seems equally as likely that churchgoers who have fallen off in virtual attendance will happily return in person as it does that they simply become lapsed practitioners.

One thing is certain: in order to maintain worshipers, churches have to find a way to increase real engagement. Not just getting people to passively watch their productions, but engage in community in a significant way, as they would by attending. Many congregations are constantly innovating new ways to address this. The social and communal aspects of church are lost in a virtual ceremony, and these are the primary factors in retention in a normal church setting. If churches are going to continue to be restricted in their ability to hold in-person services, they will need to find a better way to simulate this communal engagement if they hope to retain parishioners in the short-term.

The Power of Prayer on Yesterday’s News

I stumbled upon a fascinating and wonderful research paper that has blown open my brain in the best way. In fact, the study itself is a little suspect but the impact it has already had on me is more useful than the study itself could ever be.

A researcher in Israel ran a clinical, randomized, double-blind study of patients hospitalized with blood infections. A person was given the list of the first names of one group, and this person prayed for the recovery for each individual and the group as a whole. The group that was the subject of prayer had a slightly shorter mortality rate and a significantly shorter length of hospital stay, thus supporting the efficacy of prayer as therapeutic intervention. The study recommends prayer as an effective, low or no cost therapeutic method with no side-effects that should be instituted in clinical practice.

Oh, and did I mention that the groups of patients were in the hospital 4-10 years prior to the study?

That’s right; in recognition that the power of God transcends space and time, these prayers were made several years after the diagnosis and treatment of the blood infection. The patients had all recovered or died already, making the study both easy to blind and easy to conduct. The researcher only had to randomize the selection of the groups, have someone say a prayer for one group without knowing the outcomes of the patients, and then look to see what had happened to them all once the prayer had been said.

This is a joke of an experiment. No, literally. It was meant as a spoof, a reductio ad absurdam on the problems with randomized trials for obviously impossible treatments. It was published in a reputable journal in full recognition of its silliness as a novelty, although some scientists called for the study’s retraction.

Besides the obvious flaws it demonstrates in our methods of randomization and trial construction, I wonder why this wouldn’t be a compelling support for a believer in the power of prayer. The scientific method relies on a concept of linear time as a presupposition; the idea of a retroactive effect doesn’t square with this basic assumption. But theological argument doesn’t require this given, at least if we recognize God’s power as being greater than space or time. If God transcends time, then why shouldn’t our petitions to them include requests that also transcend time? If God is omnipotent, why couldn’t they effect change in the past?

This is one of those thought experiment paradoxes like “can God microwave a burrito so hot that God can’t eat it.” But if the power of prayer is as transcendent as many say it is, why shouldn’t we pray for an end to world wars? For the elimination of deadly viruses before they even spread? For a change in heart in murderous despots? For a plentiful bounty in the grimmest historical growing seasons? Or does the existence of historical atrocity imply that we haven’t prayed hard or successfully enough in the present? If we had only prayed better throughout time would God have altered the devastation of those historical events? Or perhaps our prayers have worked and the horror of certain historical events has already been mitigated by God’s guiding hand? We don’t have an historical control group, after all.

It is always difficult to square paradoxes in time travel, as any sci-fi enthusiast will attest. This is probably because our limited means of understanding are entirely framed by time as a linear concept. But it is a pressing question to people who pray: can your prayers effect the past?