The Big Idea: Bob Smietana
For years now, Bob Smietana has been a writer, reporter and editor for the Religion News Service, and as such has had a front row view of the changes in, and challenges of, religious organizations and entities here in the United States. Where is it all going — and where should it be going? In this Big Idea for his new book Reorganized Religion, Smietana has a few thoughts.
What would happen if all the religious groups in your community were to disappear?
If every church, synagogue, mosque, temple, other house of worship closed its door for good, along with every faith-based institution were to close their doors for good.
Would anyone miss them?
That’s the big question that’s been on my mind the past few years—and the question that led me to write “Reorganized Religion,” a new book about the decline of organized religion and how it will affect us all.
The last few decades had been difficult for organized religion.
Less than half Americans belong to a church or house of worship, down from 70% in the 1990s. The average congregation has dropped from 137 people in 1999—when I first started covering religion for a living— to 65 people.
Thousands of congregations close each year.
Tens of thousands will likely close in the near future. And a growing number of Americans could care less about God and especially about organized religion—either because they have lost faith or because they no longer trust an institution that’s been beset by scandals and been turned into an engine of divisive politics.
Yet, behind the scenes, churches and faith groups are part of the glue that holds communities together. And they provide help when crisis hits or people’s lives are falling apart.
In Kentucky, as I write, an army of volunteers, many from faith-based groups, has descended upon flood ravaged communities: cooking thousands of meals, clearing away fallen trees, helping people sift through the wreckage of their lives.
This kind of thing happens all the time. Faith-based groups provide tutoring and shelter, they run schools and hospitals, they resettle refugees, they comfort the grieving and care for those in need. When crisis strikes, they come running to help.
A friend of mine put it this way: The average person had no idea all things that churches and other faith groups do to make the world less awful. And we will not realize how much we rely on them till they are gone.
As a religion writer, I think about this all the time. If the decline of organized religion continues, what will take its place? We don’t know. But if we don’t start thinking about it or about the ways that religious groups can adapt to a changing world, we will all be the worse for it.
When I started writing Reorganized Religion, I had a lot of data and hundreds of stories based my reporting over the last 20 years on what we call “the God beat.” But the idea of the book was too detached. I could tell you why, from a practical and perhaps utilitarian viewpoint why we should care about organized religion.
But that was not good enough. Eventually I realized that I could not tell people why organized religion should matter to them–if I could not tell them why it mattered to me. .
This turned out to be harder than I thought it would be.
My work as a journalist requires a certain amount of detachment. I don’t write about my own beliefs or practice or thoughts on how religion should be practiced. My job requires me to set my own beliefs aside to focus on other people.
So here’s why it matters.
At some key moments in my life: the death of my younger brother, a crisis in our marriage, struggles with infertility—our church was there for us. They carried us when life fell apart and when we did not know how we could go on. And more than that, we found in our church a group of friends and a community we could rely on and place to belong and important work to do—work that was focused on helping others. Without that, life might have been very different.
One other story about why organized religion matters to me—a story that helped unlocked the book for me. About midway through, I was stuck. The clock was ticking, I had a tight deadline and lost the thread of the book for while at a very inconvenient time. Then I thought of my mom and how organized religion changed the course of her life.
My mom grew up in poor home, the daughter of immigrants. Her father was a janitor, her mom a millworker and there was little extra money. Certainly, no money for college. Despite being an excellent student, my mom was likely looking at a future working in the mills like her mom.
Then she got a scholarship offer from the nursing school at St. Luke’s hospital in her hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts. She took it and went on to have a long and fruitful career as a nurse, ending up as manager despite only having an associate degree. That scholarship opened up a whole new world for her.
Here the thing. In the mid-1950s, when my Mom got that scholarship, there was a great deal of hostility and suspicious towards immigrants, and especially immigrant Catholics. Some of the major religious magazines of the day ran articles about the Catholic Church taking over the US – and powerful politicians and leaders saw Catholics as a threat. There’s a reason, for example, why Joe Biden is only the second Catholic president in U.S. history.
And that hospital which was gave my Mom a scholarship? It wasn’t Catholic. Instead, it was started in the 1800s by Episcopal Sunday school class who knew their community needed a hospital and decided to start one. That hospital then started a nursing that eventually offered a place to my mom—even though I suspect the founders were not thinking about Catholic immigrants when they started the hospital. They knew their community needed help and decided to build something that would help the community thrive.
That’s why this all matters to me. Because organized religion, in a real way, saved my mom and changed her life—and my life and the life of millions of Americans like us. I don’t want it to disappear while no one pays attention.