Having charted the decline of American Christianity and argued that the numbers really indicate the first stages of an awakening, Diana Butler Bass now explores the “crisis of legitimacy” in terms of the breadth of choices available to people. Whereas fifty years ago there were relatively few (mainstream) ways to answer three key questions, now there are many, and there is no clear cultural norm. The key questions are, “Belief: What do I think?” “Behavior: How should I act?” and “Belonging: Who am I?” The tendencies now are toward less belief in a personal God, greater mixture of religious practices, and the growth of non-religious and multi-religious identities. The three big questions of religion are no longer clearly answered by institutions and traditions, although the questions remain.

We hold to a tradition that values the kind of independent thought and freedom of conscience that have risen now to critical levels. I make a point in confirmation classes that the purpose of the class is not to fill our youth full of correct answers so they can qualify as automatic members of our church. Instead, I want them to question what they’ve been taught in Sunday School, learn how to articulate their faith in adult terms, and make a new beginning at living it out. However – and this is a well-known problem with confirmation in general – something in the process fails to generate the kind of commitment that keeps youth in the church once they’ve formally “joined” it. More compelling than the institutional problem of revolving-door membership is the apparent fact that we haven’t given our youth much reason to build their lives around this faith.

The trouble with that whole way of thinking is that it suggests that we know what “the faith” is. We stand in a great tradition, of course, and there’s much to learn from those who have gone ahead of us. It is not, however, helpful to respond to this crisis of legitimacy by simply reasserting all the old answers to the old questions. The problem isn’t necessarily with the answers, but without taking the questions seriously, we don’t earn the right to suggest that our answers mean anything.

I would submit that the content of the answers is less important than the process of arriving at them. This is not my idea, but I suspect that Bass walks us through the three questions in the wrong order. Instead, belonging and behavior come first, followed only later (if at all) by belief. That is, people connect themselves with religious groups, picking up habits and practices along the way, and only eventually develop certain thoughts and beliefs to make sense of their experience. This was my experience, of course, as a lifelong Christian: I found my identity among the members of my church first, then learned to do the things they do (singing hymns, saying prayers, serving brownies), and developed my theological ideas along the way.

Reality, I’m sure, is a more fluid interplay between these three dimensions than any of us realize, but thinking “backwards” might be a good exercise for an established Christian congregation like ours. How can we first welcome others into our community of faith, before expecting them to act like we do? And how can we offer folks the gifts of our practical traditions of prayer, worship, study, and fellowship, without doing an end-run to what we expect them to think? How can we return to being people of The Way, not a group that thinks we’ve arrived at the destination?

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