U.S. church membership and attendance is declining, according to a Gallup poll released last year. From the years 1937 to 2000, an average of 70 percent of Americans reported belonging to a church; in 2018, only 52 percent did. This decline is largely due to the number of Americans claiming no particular religious affiliation, which increased from 8 percent to 19 percent between 1998 and 2018.

Personally, I haven’t even ventured inside a church since sightseeing in London several summers ago at Westminster Abbey, whose towering buttressed ceilings and beautiful stained glass evoke an immediate sense of awe. I recall the experience as bathed in peaceful silence. I marveled how God, real or not real, sure does inspire some magnificent feats of architecture.

Is it worrisome, this sharp turn of America toward the secular? Perhaps. But our nation remains quite capable of religious practice. As evidence, I cite this past Sunday’s Super Bowl LIV, a yearly culmination of devoted weekly worship; the Easter of sport, if you will.

Americans tithe — millions of dollars each year — toward merchandise and season tickets. We break bread — allowing for a broad definition of “bread” that encompasses pizza, nachos and chicken wings. We commune — over beer — because it’s game day.

We pray — for our to team win. We sit helplessly in the bleachers and trust in forces greater than ourselves: the weather, the fitness of the quarterback, whoever’s job it was to inflate the ball that day.

I admit this religion vs. football analogy is mainly an excuse to make corny jokes. I am not a football fan, and would watch an entire game only under duress. I maintain a general knowledge of which teams are succeeding each season, based on news headlines and the logos people are wearing. But I truly do not care.

I mention my lack of interest in sports not to appear “holier than thou” — I have my own idols, who will be honored next Sunday at the annual Academy Awards ceremony, an equally if not more pointless and expensive affair than grown men throwing, kicking and fighting one another over an oblong ball.

Sports, the arts — in the absence of church — we find other avenues of exaltation and ritual. Compelled by some deeply ingrained human impulse, we gather at the stadium or multiplex to honor the seasonal rhythm of playoff games or movie releases.

But our modern worship is lacking. Sports arenas and movie theaters offer one-dimensional functionality. Churches, besides just Bible study, choir practice and Sunday service, have a vital place in the larger community. They’re a venue for secular events as varied as concerts, plays, Red Cross blood drives, AA meetings and bake sales — just to name a few. I myself spent hours, days, weeks of my teenage years at Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ on West Church Street, rehearsing for various community theater productions.

Hundreds of years from now, will the Hard Rock Stadium and Mercedes-Benz Superdome be held in the same esteem as Paris’ Notre Dame, or Cologne Cathedral? Will futurelings wander the miles of food stalls, trek the endless staircases of bench seating, sit and wonder at man’s past accomplishment?

I guarantee one thing — NO ONE will remember the victors of this year’s Super Bowl or what film won best picture. I hope history quickly forgets Peyton and Eli Manning, too. Even a football ignoramus like me is sick of those guys.

Alexandra DeArmon grew up in Frederick. She sorely wanted to include a “win one for the Gipper” reference in this column and almost failed. xandra.dearmon@gmail.com.

(16) comments

public-redux

Alexandra, FWIW, most of the “nones” are not secular. They might be “spiritual but not religious” or religious but unaffiliated with any sect.

I very much enjoyed this column, BTW. I didn’t think your jokes were corny at all. The parallels between religion and sports are spot on.

DickD

Alexandra, why does it have to be one or the other? Personally, I go to church. It is my choice, but it has nothing to do with sports. How in the world do you make that connection? Now, I do love to watch sports, especially football. Have you ever played any sport or are you just a coach potato?

shiftless88

I have generally assumed that declining attendance in church was due to an increased freedom to NOT attend church and not be shunned in your society. Many people were just going through the motions.

public-redux

I’ve often wondered what fraction of attendees were going thru the motions. Certainly every church I ever belonged back when I was religious had people who didn’t seem to walk the walk. Of course, it was impossible to know what the believed. Also, once scholars turned their attention to the subject, it turned out that self-reported attendance at religious services far exceeded actual attendance. About one-third to one-half of people lied about going to church.

Dwasserba

Religion-affiliated organizations are still huge contributors to the well being of diverse, needy Christians and non-Christians.

Boyce Rensberger

The period DeArmon cites as having a high percentage of religious participation was, in fact, a peak brought on by a deliberate campaign of a few Christian and industrial leaders who also created the National Prayer Breakfast in 1953 and inserted "under God" into the pledge of allegiance in 1954. It was done at the height of the country's fears of the Soviet Union and Communism.

Abraham Vereide and the National Association of Manufacturers were major sponsors of the movement. They feared the Communists and figured that a good way to combat it was to push people to join churches. Billy Graham was a major part of their movement.

So it's no wonder that with the fall of the Soviet Union and the recession of communism, the push to join churches has melted away. Americans are going back to the way they were in the 19th century when religion was practiced by a minority.

des21

Tell that to scholars who work on the "Great Awakening" of the 18th century and the religious revivals of the ante bellum period. Your "analysis" would stun them..

awteam2000

Des21, Mr. Rensberger is referring to “The Fourth Great Awakening” in American religious activism. One notable star of that period was Billy Graham. He held large indoor and outdoor rallies that where broadcast on radio and television dwarfing anything done in the past. Starting in 1947, Graham hosted the annual "Crusades", a huge evangelistic campaign.

Boyce Rensberger

I actually went to a Billy Graham "crusade" when I was young, (maybe 13 or 14) dragged there by the family of my best friend. It was in a huge athletic arena, attended by tens of thousands. It was a fascinating display of emotional badgering by Graham. Everybody is bad and needs to be made good. People were pressed to get out of their seats, climb down to the floor to stand in front of Graham and swear allegiance to his god.They even played mournful music for what must have been half an hour, waiting for people to come forward. Every now and then Graham would repeat some words to the effect of "You know you're bad and need to get right." Hundreds of people streamed down to the floor. I don't know what happened to them afterward.

des21

Billy Graham was alive in the 19th century. Wow, he had a life span of truly Biblical proportions!

Boyce Rensberger

Oh I've read about the repeated "awakenings." Each came about following an overall decline in religious participation. No point in awakening people if they hadn't fallen asleep.

DickD

Interesting, Boyce, but I think you are wrong. There was a lot if fear right after WWII and perhaps during WWII what Russia would do after the war. They were our allies, but never our friend, politically. Without us they could not have done good against the Germans, especially at Stalingrad. And without them it would have cost many more American lives. There were songs with religious overtones,

Here is one;

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Praise_the_Lord_and_Pass_the_AmmunitionPraise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" The song describes a chaplain ("sky pilot") being with some fighting men who are under attack from an enemy. He is asked to say a prayer for the men who were engaged in firing at the oncoming planes. The chaplain puts down his Bible, mans one of the ship's gun turrets and begins firing back, saying, "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition".

Boyce Rensberger

What am I wrong about? Didn't I say that the religious revival of the 1950s grew out of fear of the Communist Soviet Union?

Yes, the Soviet army played a major role in defeating the Nazis and in liberating people from the concentration camps.

des21

SMH.[sad]

Obadiah Plainsmen

In Bible (Exodus) a Golden Calf was an idol made by the Israelites when Moses went up to Mt. Sinai. Today an idol is a Golden statue named Oscar because it resembled Margaret Herrick Uncle Oscar .

public-redux

1. Virtually all of the “miracles” I’ve seen occurred on sportsball fields.

2. Sporting arenas are razed when they have outlived their usefulness.

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