Changing society forces religious institutions to adapt

Rabbi Yossi Feintuch: “The prayers are going to remain; the question is only whether you are going to read the prayers from a big screen or from a smaller screen.”

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In the digital age, the ways religious organizations interact with their followers is changing dramatically. While some denominations change their beliefs to line up with modern society, others stand firm in their traditional worldviews. Here are some ways different religions (and the nonreligious) are changing today.

Christianity

When a devastating tornado hit Joplin in 2011, members of various churches around the country rushed to donate. Instead of giving to their own church or a larger organization that would distribute the funds, as they would have in the past, they went to Joplin church websites and donated directly to those affected.

Local churches used to have a sort of monopoly on the deployment of people and resources in their communities — but in the digital age, this function has become less and less relevant. As a result, the role of churches is shifting. What used to be a powerful, wide-reaching authority has become an organization that brings together people of similar beliefs and strengthens their faith, said Kendall Waller, lead pastor of Missouri United Methodist Church.

This shift in the role of the church is causing fractures within denominations, Waller said. He predicts that as a whole, Christian churches will become “more distributed and less centralized.”

“Within denominations — you can see it across the U.S. — we disagree on issues like human sexuality, we disagree on some finer points of theology and others,” Waller said. “I think rather than binding it all together in one denomination, it’ll probably become a looser organization of peer-to-peer churches that have common objectives.”

This “grassroots” structure, in which churches vary widely depending on the community they serve, has historically been present in the Baptist denomination, said Carol McEntyre, senior pastor at First Baptist Church. In a sense, the Baptist Church, with its lack of central authority, represents what more traditional denominations may soon look like.

However, without a central authority, progress may be limited to certain churches, while others cling to traditional values. For example, McEntyre is the first female senior pastor at First Baptist and is part of the 9 percent of Baptist pastors who are female. Many Baptist churches refuse to allow women into leadership roles due to their interpretation of the Bible regarding the roles of men and women.

“In terms of the church in the future, it just seems to me that it’s going to be really incongruent for millennials and the generations afterwards to say, ‘What do you mean a woman can’t serve in leadership?’” McEntyre said. “It just makes no sense to people who out in the world think, ‘I can be or do anything I want to.’”

While some churches, like First Baptist and United Methodist, responded to social progression by promoting a message of inclusion, the Catholic Church seems like it will continue its traditional stance into the future, according to Reverend Chris Cordes, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.

“I think one of the realities of religion or churches in interacting with society as a whole, and especially with the Catholic Church and some of the more traditional churches, is we tend to move slowly,” Cordes said. “Obviously, as time goes by, and in the last century, last decade, last year, technology and communication and everything goes so fast, so the challenge is keeping up. The church, by nature, is slower to adapt to things.”

Islam

When Gold Star father Khizr Khan offered to lend Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump his pocket-sized copy of the Constitution during his speech at the Democratic National Convention, it started a debate that placed Muslim-Americans at the center of the narrative. His gesture brought common misconceptions about Islam in America to light.

The Muslim Speakers Bureau of Columbia, a group based out of the Islamic Center of Central Missouri, advocates for the same issues as Khan by providing information on Muslim Americans to classes, businesses and law enforcement. Rafa Nizam, coordinator of MSBC, feels that the best way to battle stereotypes and ignorance is through education.

“I think once all these extremist groups subside, however we manage to do that, whether it’s through military involvement, or we rebuild these countries and dethrone these forces, until then, people are going to be really on edge with the concept of Islam,” Nizam said.

Nizam said acceptance of Muslim Americans seems to be growing slowly, despite isolated incidents of violence and discrimination against Muslims.

“Hopefully that trend [of acceptance] continues, that people can see the nuances of the human experience and also that Muslims have their gradient as well,” Nizam said. “I think gradually you’ll see more Muslims going into the political realm, journalism, media, stuff like that.”

As the younger generations of Muslims move into leadership positions within mosques and other Muslim organizations, Nizam predicts that Islam will continue to adapt to American and global society through changes such as an increase in female leaders and technology use.

“The arc of history works towards progression,” Nizam said. “I don’t think Muslims are going to be viewed as the bad guys forever. But to get to that point is going to be the work of MSBC, of advocacy groups, of social media campaigns and all of these different organizations.”

Judaism

Ecclesiastes 1:9 says: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Congregation Beth Shalom believes this to be true.

Feintuch said the issues Jews face today are just different manifestations of the issues they have faced throughout history.

“Judaism is the only religion that emerged alive from antiquity,” Feintuch said. “It is certainly older than Christianity, and certainly older than Islam. It has survived through adjustments, and the religion that is observed today is not necessarily the religion of Biblical days.”

Despite minor changes in rituals, Feintuch said the core beliefs of Judaism have remained constant throughout history, and he doesn’t think young people today pose any more of a threat than they did centuries ago.

“With all the changes that we see in the younger generation — every generation has a younger generation,” Feintuch said. “In that sense, challenges and issues that were manifested in the 1950s are manifested today and will be manifested 50 years since.”

As technology has changed and become a larger part of many religious services, this shift has had little effect on Jewish services due to the practice of not using electricity on the Sabbath. Despite this, Feintuch predicts that in the far future, elements like prayer books may be replaced with personal tablets.

“For the most part, the core fundamentals are not going to change,” Feintuch said. “The calendar is not going to change. The rituals are not going to change. The prayers are going to remain; the question is only whether you are going to read the prayers from a big screen or from a smaller screen.”

Atheism

While some religious institutions remain largely the same over centuries of social change, other groups, including nonreligious organizations, have seen major growth in the age of the internet.

According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of adults who do not believe in God increased from 5 percent in 2007 to 9 percent in 2014. Columbia Atheists co-organizer Carla Burris attributes some of this change to the expansion of the internet, which she says has made religious isolation nearly impossible for younger generations.

Although increased visibility of different worldviews has helped create more acceptance for atheists, Burris also believes it has made younger atheists more ambitious than their older counterparts when it comes to their political goals.

“Older atheists on the whole remember times where religion was so much the default for everything,” Burris said. “They’re either much more used to keeping quiet, or they’re pissed they had to stay quiet, and they’re the most firebrand about it. Their goals may be more modest. Younger atheists — at least the ones I know — tend to have more assumptions that things should be more fair, and they should just become fair.”

Burris predicts that as atheism among American adults continues to increase in popularity, there may be pushback against the entire belief system of atheists because of the actions of a few. She says because there is no consistent set of beliefs in atheism, there is no clear way to differentiate “bad atheists” from the rest of the group.

“As atheists become more visible, [non-atheists] will see atheists doing bad, evil, stupid stuff, and there may be backlash,” Burris said. “People will see us and say, ‘Look at all the evil atheists.’”

Despite this expected criticism, Burris expects to see general attitudes toward atheists to shift toward acceptance of atheism, primarily within the U.S., with Missouri following behind the nation. Ultimately, Burris looks forward to a time where there is no expectation of religion and atheism is not looked down upon.

Edited by Katie Rosso | krosso@themaneater.com

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