The Barna Research Group just released a new survey that says, essentially, that the attacks of 9/11 have had virtually no long-term effect on American religious life. Despite the surge in worship attendance immediately following the attacks, five years later the character of and participation in matters of faith by people in the U.S. is statistically identical to what it was prior to the attacks. You can download the entire article here.
I was struck by what one of the researchers said in response to this new data: “Many Christian leaders predicted that terrorism on U.S. soil would catalyze a spiritual awakening in the country. The first few weeks were promising. But people quickly returned to their standard, faith-as-usual lives: within a month, most of their spiritual fervor was gone. Within 90 days, surprisingly few people were pursuing important questions about faith and spirituality. Now, five years removed from that fateful day, spiritually speaking, it’s as if nothing significant ever happened. People used faith like a giant band-aid – it helped people deal with the ugliness of the event but it offered little in the way of deep healing and it was discarded after a brief period of use.”
But here’s my theory–I think that so many people came to church in those days following the horror of 9/11 and found the church to be exactly what it was before that fateful day. The world had changed but the church hadn’t. In a world where institutions are under attack the church largely continues to function as an institution and offered institutional responses (letters from bishops, etc.). We offered comfort to people and opportunities to pray (all important), but we also failed to challenge people to change and failed to challenge our country to pay attention to how we, as a postmodern empire, deal with the rest of the world. 9/11 should have shaken us to the reality of pervasive evil in the world and the need for human redemption and reconciliation, but instead most of our denominations quickly went back to bickering about other social issues.
The sad truth is that there will be other opportunities for us to do a better job of proclaiming God’s truth in the midst of catastrophic human evil. Perhaps this time we’ll be better prepared to offer not only comfort, but challenge and change.