Multirelgious society

In December, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released results from a new poll that finds "large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions." You have probably heard the figures already:

  • A third of all Americans worship in more than one place.
  • A quarter of all Americans sometimes worship beyond their own tradition.
  • These numbers increase among those who attend worship at least once a week. 

See the poll results here.

The Pew Forum reported in 2008 that the number of Americans who do not claim any religious affiliation rose above 15 percent.

Combined with membership declines in many churches, some observers detect the dawn of an irreligious, unbelieving America. 

But as the recent report shows, this is not the case. America is not less religious but rather religious in different ways than before. North Americans are certainly more multireligious than previous generations. While this raises countless questions for American Christians across the spectrum, it also has particular implications for theological schools. 

One particular question that's close to my heart is whether theological schools ought to be on the vanguard, leading their churches as they try to chart a course through the changing North American religious landscape. Or, on the other hand, whether they ought to let congregations and denominations lead the way in responding to changes in faith and culture.

It may help to understand the difference between "learning" and "teaching" organizations. One source of wisdom here is the of Peter Senge, who laid out the qualities of the "learning organization" almost 20 years ago. See his book The Fifth Discipline.

Following this tradition, Bill Taylor (co-founder of Fast Company magazine and author of the forthcoming book Practically Radical) argues that institutions should move beyond being merely learning organizations and function as teaching organizations. To remain vital and relevant, they should be setting the agenda rather than merely going along with the flow. Not only must organizations continually learn about their changing contexts, they must also teach the world about what they learn. If an organization lags behind the curve, it is doomed for mediocrity.

There is certainly an application to theological education. Boards and theological school leaders need to return again and again to the fundamental question: What is our mission?

Editor's note: The Alban Institute recently addressed the topic of interfaith education in a blog post called "The Case for Multifaith Education." Read that post here.


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