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How Helpful Is The New Pew Study?

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The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a new study on American religious habits yesterday. Like many studies of the same sort, it is filled with alarming anecdotes chronicling the rise of religious syncretism (the mashing together of beliefs from New Age, Christian, Native American, Hindu traditions, etc.). One woman, quoted in a USA Today story on the study said,
Regina Roman of Alexandria, Va., calls herself "a very grounded Episcopalian" who's active in her church. But, she says, "I'm also stretching the boundaries of how we are to be here and now in this day, age and culture."

She leads pilgrimages to Egypt, New Mexico and Ireland to help travelers discover the truths and visions in Coptic, Native American and Celtic traditions. Roman celebrated the winter solstice with a home ceremony for guests to delight in the sun's gifts.

"We are all in relationship with the cosmos. We need to honor that," says Roman, who doesn't see herself crossing barriers but rather "coming full circle" with ancient ideas.

The actual statistics, however, don't seem to be as clear: "Between 47% and 59% of Americans have changed religions at least once, according to a Pew survey released in April." "Changed religions" as in moving from Baptist to Wiccan? Or, is this moving from Bible church to Lutheran?

The study goes on to say that "28% of people who attend church at least weekly say they visit multiple churches outside their own tradition."  Again, how broadly is "tradition" being defined here?

Some statistics are clearly problematic: between twenty and thirty percent of self-described Christians

  • believe that people will be reborn in this world again and again (22%)

  • believe that Yoga is a spiritual practice (21%)

  • believe that the position of stars/planets can affect people's lives (23%)

  • have been in touch with the dead (29%)

  • have found "spiritual energy" in trees, etc. (23%)


In addition  to pointing out a crying need for catechesis in our churches, this survey should also encourage pastors to be aware: don't take your congregation's grounding in the faith for granted. Continual teaching (especially in identifying alternative religious movements and contrasting them with the Gospel) is crucial for disciple-making.

For more on the new spiritualities that are changing America's religious landscape, check out the May/June 2008 issue of Modern Reformation, "The New Spiritualities," available online to subscribers (the print version is also available for purchase by calling 800-890-7556). If you're not yet a subscriber, you can sign up for a thirty day free trial here.
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