“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
~The Rev. John Wesley, Founder of Methodism
A cursory glance at my social media feeds today will reveal any number of Christian bloggers railing at the dysfunction of modern religion. Religion, they claim, has been the source of one foul scourge upon the earth after another; an institution only in existence for its own self-perpetuation that does more to hinder a love of Jesus than it does to help. The alternative (much summarized) is to love Jesus but hate religion.
Although I might be tempted to view this rhetoric as a recent phenomenon, in truth I believe that it can be traced back to the anti-institutionalism of the 1960’s. In his book, Bowling Alone, Harvard Sociologist Robert Putnam notes that the 1960’s saw the rise of a “generation which, relative to earlier generations, rejects the norms and institutions that are central to the…system of which they are a part. Although 96 percent of [this generation] was raised in a religious tradition, 58 percent abandoned that tradition and only about one in three of the apostates has returned.”
This message of religious anti-institutionalism has so permeated our Christian ethos over the past 6 decades, that it is difficult (though not impossible) to find contemporary voices from within the faith that speak positively of institutionalized religion in any capacity. To be fair, I fully understand that there are exceptions to this message. There are those among us who have been working to spread a different message about institutionalized religion. Nonetheless, the popularity of anti-institutionalism and specifically religious anti-institutionalism over this formative period in American history must have had an impact on the religious perception of the American people.
So, what I find myself wondering is this…If religious anti-institutionalism has indeed been a major component of the message that the people of the Church have been sending to the world for over ½ of a century, I cannot help but wonder whether or not the elusive reason behind declining participation in institutionalized religion in America over the past 6 decades (The United Methodist Church has been in decline since the late 1960’s) is simply that people have listened. We told them that organized, institutionalized religion was bad, and then we didn’t understand why they stopped participating in it.
Ironically, even those researchers who engage in secular research, and are therefore not overtly Christian, have noted that this message of religious anti-institutionalism which states that institutionalism in religion is a hindrance to those who would live out an authentic love of Christ, is not factually accurate. I return briefly to the work of Robert Putnam who noted that:
faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America. Religious institutions directly support a wide range of social activities well beyond conventional worship. Among the entries on the weekly calendar of the Riverside Church in New York City, a mainline Protestant congregation, were meetings of the Social Service Training Session, the AIDS Awareness Seminar, the Ecology Task Force, the Chinese Christian Fellowship, Narcotics Anonymous, Riverside Business and Professional Women’s Club, Gulf Crisis Study Series, Adult Children of Alcoholics, and Martial Arts Class for Adults and Teens. Regular worshippers and people who say that religion is very important to them are much more likely than other people to visit friends, to entertain at home, to attend club meetings, and to belong to sports groups: professional and academic societies; school service groups; youth groups; service clubs; hobby or garden clubs; literary, art, discussion, and study groups; school fraternities and sororities; farm organizations; political clubs; nationality groups; and others…
While defending the accused British soldiers after what would later come to be known as “The Boston Massacre,” Former President John Adams remarked that, “facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The truth that Christian people should be communicating with the world is that participation in institutionalized religion and loving Jesus are not mutually exclusive. While history has noted much evil that has been accomplished in the name of religion, there is likewise much good that is still accomplished every time that the structure of institutionalized religion provides a framework to mobilize the people of God to share the power of God in the midst of a hurting and broken world.
The hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the ill are cared for, the impoverished are provided for, the lonely are embraced, and the abandoned are redeemed all because the people of God came together to form a structure that makes it possible for large numbers of people to participate together in what God is doing to heal brokenness in the world.
I cannot help but wonder what the world would look like 6 decades from now if the Body of Christ started living out that message today.
 Putnam, Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community, 258.
 Ibid., 66–67.