The Disappearance of Church Religion

Thomas Luckmann, The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society (New York: Macmillan, 1967).

LuckmannEven on Easter Sunday people don’t go to church the way they used to. Some give as their reason that they aren’t religious. Others that they are spiritual but with a spirituality that does not need institutional expression. Others may be willing to engage in religious practices and patterns of devotion but believe that churches no longer provide an effective form of public ceremony.

Whatever the reason, it is accurate to declare that church religion is disappearing. The challenge for all of us, whether or not we participate in church religion, is to understand the phenomenon we experience around us.

For me, the place to begin is a book that was published nearly half a century ago by Thomas Luckmann, professor of sociology at the University of Frankfurt and for a time a faculty member of the New School for Social Research.

He entitled his book The Invisible Religion:The Problem of Religion in Modern Society. Luckmann wrote that the focus of studies in his discipline tended to be “church religion,” the forms of religious observance that take place within the framework of specialized religious institutions. Because church religion was declining in Europe and the United States, many of his colleagues were concluding that religion itself was disappearing.

Not so, Luckmann asserted. Instead, people were expressing their religion—which he defined as “the transcendence of biological nature by the human organism”—in a new, non-institutional way.

As I understand this idea, it is that a human being is more than an ongoing complex of biological and psychological experiences. Each person interacts with others and in the process becomes aware of oneself and of everything else. One’s past, present, and future are integrated into “a socially defined, morally relevant biography.” Each of us embarks with others to construct an “’objective’ and moral universe of meaning. Therefore the organism transcends its biological nature” (49).

One of the most important aspects of this religious process is taking into oneself a world view, which Luckmann defined as “an encompassing system of meaning in which socially relevant categories of time, space, causality and purpose are superordinated to more specific schemes in which reality is segmented and the segments are related to one another” (53).  Although world views could be developed individually, this rarely happens because the “universe-constructing activities of successive generations. . .is immeasurably greater than  that of individual streams of consciousness” (52).

Central to Luckmann’s thesis is the fact that in the modern world all institutions become sharply specialized, each dealing with its specific area of responsibility. No institution, including the religious, can unite all of the other perspectives and connect them authoritatively to the sacred cosmos. Because life experiences change more rapidly than institutions, however, churches and other religious institutions lose their potency. Their message is experienced as rhetoric rather than as essential and authoritative explanations of the objective world.

Furthermore, this rhetoric is understood as important only in private matters and has no bearing upon the values and norms of the other domains of life such as economics and politics. In their religious development, individuals act as consumers, accepting only those elements they find meaningful.

Although a once dominant religious worldview can lose its dominance, its central themes and values linger in the society and are incorporated into the religious identities that people develop for themselves. Even in a society where two thirds of the people are non-observant in religious institutions, the themes from those institutions continue to be part of the commonly affirmed religious values and life practices.

Luckmann offered four questions for students of religion to consider: 1) What norms do determine the priorities of people? 2) What systems provide the “overarching, sense-integrating function in contemporary life?” 3) How clearly are they linked to individual systems of ultimate significance and to social roles and positions? 4) To what extent is official religion being internalized and what is its relevance to systems of ultimate significance in contemporary life? (91).

While the church religion that once was central to European and American life is disappearing, and the religious function is more personalized than once was the case, it is unlikely that human societies can exist as fully individualized conglomerations of people who do not share norms and patterns of life.

Institutions will continue to emerge and participate in shaping human values, patterns, and practices. If the Christian faith continues to lead people to “life abundant,” it will be because revised forms of church religion will emerge.

What will they be? And how can those who lead churches now participate in shaping these new forms? These are the questions for leaders of churches during these post-Easter days.

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2 Responses to The Disappearance of Church Religion

  1. Gene Hill says:

    Very interesting, Keith. How would this relate to what some are calling “The Emerging Church?” And I’m not certain I fully understand that definition either – ha!

    • Gene, my understanding of the emergent church movement is quite limited. It is a vocal and influential way of reshaping the way that Christian experience manifests itself in contemporary life. The very existence of this movement is a confirmation of Luckmann’s thesis. And it may be that the soft form of institutional relations that arise in emergent churches will be adequate for our needs in the future. I suspect, however, that there will be a lot of development before the movement reaches mature form.

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