According to a recent survey by Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution (PRRI), the strength of religious conservatives may be waning:
“Our new research shows a complex religious landscape, with religious conservatives holding an advantage over religious progressives in terms of size and homogeneity,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI. “However, the percentage of religious conservatives shrinks in each successive generation, with religious progressives outnumbering religious conservatives in the Millennial generation (ages 18-33).” (“Survey finds strength in religious left,” attributed to Religious News Service and added sources, Christian Century, 21 August 2013, p. 12.)
In my own religiously progressive congregation, we’re seeing an astonishingly large number of visitors and newcomers — I estimate it’s something on the order of 200 or more a year (not all of whom we manage to count accurately). Since our congregation has a year-round average attendance of just over 200, you can see that 200 visitors is a significant quantity of visitors.
But our attendance is holding pretty much steady. (It does look like we’ve seen an uptick of about 5% in the last 12 months, so maybe we’re starting on an upward trend.) I’m willing to bet that most progressive congregations are probably in pretty much the same boat we are: lots of visitors, not much retention.
Back when I was in sales, we used to talk about whether you were hungry or not. Your sales commission is low? Maybe you’re not hungry. Is another salesperson doing better than you? Then she or he is hungrier than you are. It’s just like when you’re actually hungry — I mean starving hungry — and hunger forced you to have a laser-like focus on where your next meal came from. For salespeople, being hungry meant you didn’t rest on past performance because you were always looking ahead to where the next sale was going to come from. Being hungry meant that you were willing to go the extra distance to build relationships with potential customers. Being hungry meant that you were always on your game, and never slacked off for a moment.
I think religious progressives need to get hungry. We are too willing to rest on past performance — “We were involved in the Civil Rights Movement!”; but that’s in the past, and today, who cares? Too often, we are not willing to go the extra distance — “I don’t want to seem like I’m proselytizing”; instead of thinking about how you can share an important part of your life with those who might want it. We’re not hungry, so we’re not on our game.
I think progressive religion will continue to grow. But I’m not convinced that it will be centered in existing progressive congregations — that is, unless we get hungry.