John A. Coleman

The Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow is the dean of American sociologists of religion. His innovative research and prolific writings have deeply informed both scholars and church administrators. Over the years, he has written ground-breaking studies on many subjects: the restructuring of the American religious map; small groups in the church; stewardship and issues of money; religion and volunteering and religion and philanthropy; American spirituality. The strength of his research is that it combines state of the art survey research with in-depth interviews and content analysis. In the end, one feels he gives you not just the “facts” but a feel for them. Moreover, he writes pellucid prose in a reader-friendly style. No sociological jargon here.

All in Sync asks why organized religion has retained its relative stability. Over the years, little drop-off has been registered in the percentage of Americans who say they are Christian, who contend that they pray frequently, who go to church, who report they believe in God. This is a puzzle, since so many social changes have been unfavorable to organized religion: 1) women moving into the workforce (women who work are less likely than those who do not to go to church); 2) rising divorce rates (the divorced are less likely than the never divorced to belong to churches); 3) geographic mobility (those who move more are more likely to drop out of churches); 4) an increased cultural pluralism, which erodes stable identities. Even when one notes some decline in social capital in church settings, churches have fared much better than the other voluntary organizations in garnering volunteers and creating communities.

How to explain this stability in the face of factors that should have led to decline? Wuthnow argues that religious vitality stems from three factors. Religion flourishes when there is a real or perceived need or interest; when there are some legitimate religious claims to meet this need; where there is weakness in competitors to religion to meet that need. Wuthnow notes a pervasive and growing interest in spirituality in America and asks: is this something that might be a competitor to churches, or a possible source of new vitality?

In a national survey about spirituality and religion, Wuthnow puts paid to easy dichotomies caught in the bromide: “I am spiritual but not religious.” Many religious leaders have feared the explosive spiritual marketplace as an eclectic bricolage, a mere dabbling with shallow roots in traditions, community and spinoff into service. Wuthnow’s survey finds evidence that many, indeed, who claim they are spiritual are very casual about it, embracing “spirituality lite.” For the one-fourth of the population, however, who say they are extremely interested in spirituality and work at it with true discipline and practice, the dichotomy breaks down.

People in the survey who have the highest commitment to spiritual growth are overwhelmingly involved in religious organizations. Eighty percent of those who value spiritual growth the most are church members, and 71 percent of them say they attend worship services every week. Those who claim to pray frequently as part of their spiritual discipline also go more to churches than the general population. They are also more likely to hold positive views of the clergy. Those who claim to put effort into their spirituality, to work at it, are also more likely to engage in service volunteering.

So, argues Wuthnow, anything that nudges the public interest in spiritual growth to higher levels (and actual sustained practice rather than dabbling) is likely to benefit organized religion. But he notes some new themes in American spirituality. There is little emphasis on motifs of an afterlife and meager concern with God’s kingdom. The emphasis is on a reflective, practical and experiential spirituality that relates to everyday life. He also notices that, increasingly, people speak of using music, art and body movement as part of their spiritual practices. So, he asks a second set of questions: what role might art and music play in contemporary spirituality and as something conducive to church growth?

In a specially designed survey conducted in 1999, the Arts and Religion survey, Wuthnow probes the connections. People with greater exposure to art show greater interest in a serious commitment to spiritual growth. People with artistic interests are more likely to pray. Many respondents recall early childhood religious experiences associated with hearing hymns and seeing stained-glass windows or art objects. These anchor a religious imagination in their lives more than sermons heard.

Moreover, churches are one of the main places where people are exposed to the arts: music, liturgical dance, skits and dramas. At least 30 percent of small groups in churches discuss art, music and literature. Sixty-five percent of the respondents say churches should do more to encourage their members’ creativity and imagination. A high interest in art correlates with a high interest in spirituality. Indeed, much of the renewed interest in spirituality in America stems from celebrities from the world of art (those who speak publicly about their own spirituality and those who weave spiritual themes into their music and song). Congregations with more focus on the arts are more likely to have the following characteristics: members who say spiritual growth is extremely important, who devote a great deal of effort to their spiritual development and who say their spirituality is increasing.

A splendid chapter on the religious imagination probes why there is so little talk about it in churches. Spirituality is about an imaginative Christian life—one that can connect spiritual motifs to everyday life and deepen it. It is also one that can get around the block put up by moralism. Imagination makes connections and helps to root hope. There is, however, a morality problem in the nexus between art and religion. Art stresses creativity, paradox and fluidity. Artists are often dissidents. Religion too often is concerned with control. It wants art that reinforces its meaning system. The morality problem is more intense among evangelicals than mainline Protestants and Catholics. Evangelicals are more likely to want to censor art or restrict it to purely religious motifs. They worry more about “degenerate” art. Organizational connections between the art world and churches, moreover, remain tenuous and spotty.

The clear message for religious leaders and busy pastors from Wuthnow’s data is that programs that stress serious spiritual growth and discipline would bolster rather than undermine church growth. Linkage between art and spirituality will also broaden the church’s outreach and base. It is noteworthy that the cohort of Generation X, who often are missing in the Sunday pews, noticeably prefer an emphasis on spiritual growth and a connection between art and religion. The new bromide Wuthnow is suggesting runs something like this: “I am serious about spirituality (and practice it regularly and show concern about spiritual growth) and, therefore, I am also religious.”

John A. Coleman, S.J., is Casassa Professor of Social Justice, Loyola Marymount University.