The fastest growing religious affiliation today is no affiliation at all. Those who adhere to no particular religion, and may or may not be believers in God, are becoming commonplace and accepted, while those who remain deeply rooted in religious beliefs, are often seen as “behind the times.” As more and more churches and other religious institutions close due to dwindling attendance, religious leaders of all faiths are scrambling to find ways to keep their doors open. In an effort to understand what draws people to or away from faith, the Elucidator spoke to the next generation of local leaders and active members of the religious and atheist communities. Despite the differing belief systems of our subjects, a common theme emerged, that of an increasing focus on the importance of community and acceptance, rather than strict doctrine. Time will tell what the future will be for organized religion but for now, we can hope for peace, love and understanding between us all.
Unfortunately, I think that a lot of us feel like we have to come into church and have this posture of having it all together and knowing exactly where we stand. It’s important for the church to make people aware that it’s ok to give voice to our ambiguities.
The other imperative on the church is to be aware of the needs of the community they are in. In the Mennonite church, there is a lot of hands on work in the community, equal in effort to the proselytizing and verbal evangelizing. There is a kind of sense of really wanting to live faith and serve others and that being a way to express what we believe.
Congregations are dwindling. Some of that has to do with the current cultural environment and some of that has to do with people not understanding what Mennonites are. There is definitely some anxiety about the future.
Because of that, one of the most important things to remember is that our role as a church begins outside the church walls. Community is very important. One of the most rewarding things for me as Pastor has been to watch the people provide a community for each other, to be there for each other and love one another. To be able to walk with people on their faith journey has been incredibly rewarding.
-Krista Ehst, 29, Pastor, Alpha Mennonite Church, Alpha, NJ.
For me, it’s not depressing to think there is no God, no afterlife. It makes the right now more special. I feel glad to have this time. It makes me want to make the most of it, to spend time with those who are important to me, to do good works, because I know this is the only time that I have.
-Adam Will Snyder, 29, atheist and member of Lehigh Valley Humanists.
Humanists believe it is possible to be a good person without God. The Lehigh Valley Humanists are a non profit. We are trying to recreate that sense of community that you get in your faith community. We are trying to fill that void. We have a book club, we go out to dinner, we have guest speakers, and we do lots and lots of volunteer work.
Not having a supernatural thing to turn to to give you forgiveness really forces you to take responsibility for things. When you do something wrong, you have to ask forgiveness of the person you wronged, not God.
This is all we have, when we are done here, we’re done. You better try and do good things and leave the world a better place than you found it because we only have one shot. It makes the right now very important. Look at what we have, look at us. It’s amazing that we as humans are here, that nature is here.
-Kate Wilgruber, 28, atheist and member of Lehigh Valley Humanists.
I’m a believer that everyone seeks truth. Everyone is a seeker. From the moment you are born, to the moment you expire, you are seeking something that can guide you. Very rarely does my faith get shaken. There are moments when I have doubts, and wonder why bad things happen. But sometimes those bad times are where God shows you what your purpose is. It could be that God put you in this environment to be the person of hope, grace and mercy in chaotic moments. Take those moments to affirm who you are. Out of adversity comes great purpose for many individuals.
It is extremely hard to get our culture to come to church and stay in church. Church was intended to be a place of community, a second family. It should be a place where you aren’t judged, aren’t ostracized, you are embraced. But church has become a place of exclusion in many people’s minds. That’s not what Jesus wanted. He wanted to create a family. Church should provide the freedom and hope of the world. I’m a big believer that now is the greatest time for us to rise up. Come as you are and let God do his work.
-Brandon Sardik, 28, Youth Pastor, Shiloh Baptist Church, Easton.
My mom never forced us to go back to church, never pressured us. She always said that when God connects with you and you connect with him, it will be more of an organic thing, no one will have to tell you, it will just happen. I remember it was New Year’s Day 2006, right here in this church, and I really felt something. I was moved to respond and come up to the front and pray and that was the process that began for me with walking in faith.
A lot of people, their faith is hinged on what their parents told them. They tell them “This is who God is” or “You have to do this.” Many of us walk around with just what they have heard, but I’m such a strong believer because I have seen God for myself. God has moved in my life. I believe that he has said to me what his purpose for me is in my life. It’s really intimate. Every person should have their own personal relationship with God. When people connect with that, it allows their faith to stay strong, no matter what life brings our way.
-Jason K. Vanderburg. 23, Minister, Shiloh Baptist Church, Easton.
When people have lost faith, I have a lot of mercy for them, because I have had my own doubts. I embrace my doubt, I see it as a way to transcendence and getting closer to God. I don’t see it as an enemy. I see it as a tool. Doubt is a signal that something is wrong. Doubt says that something about the way religion is being applied is off, not the theory, but the way it is applied.
A lot of people have gone to an extreme where they don’t have God in their life. You can talk about anything in school but if you bring up God, it’s awkward. We must remember that in America we believe in freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. People are looking for something to believe in. If you have a hole in your life, you want to fill it up with something. People want to believe in something greater than themselves, it’s in our psyche.
People want religion, they will find it anywhere, it’s in Star Wars, Marvel movies, a Bruce Springsteen concert…people are looking for religious metaphors, religious experiences. They just don’t want religion to be a hammer coming down on them that breaks them, they want a hammer that builds them up.
Deep inside people need something. Faith is a journey, not a destination.
-Saad Omar, 30, Muslim Folk Singer, Alburtis.
To me the music of my faith is what draws me in. I see how it affects people, see how it transports them to other places.
In order to keep youth involved in religion, they need to be entertained. Show them that this is fun, it’s cool, it’s great, that there is a community here to support you and for you to support. You help us, we help you. It becomes a family. Many people disconnect from one another and frankly when you know you are helping someone and they really need it, it makes you feel happy inside. And then they help you when you need it.
I still face doubt all the time. I yell at God. I have a one sided conversation with him (or her). There are times when I wonder why God would let such horrible things happen. And then I remember that God can not control the choices of others, people will do what they want. It is life.
I want to say that in the future there will be more peace and understanding between religions. I really hope that we can have a world where everyone is fine with their own religion. You’re Muslim, I’m Christian, you’re Jewish, it doesn’t matter. We all praise God in our own way.
Religion in some ways is family for me. It’s been so tied up with how I’ve been raised, how I’ve lived, that it’s as natural as breathing.
-Annalise Davis, 23, daughter of Rabbi Melody Davis, Temple Covenant of Peace, Easton.
About the Contributors
Dawn Ouellette Nixon
Dawn Ouellette Nixon is the Editor of the Elucidator. She also pens the "ask" interview column and the occasional feature. She lives on College Hill in…
Stephanie Kelly Imhoff
Stephanie Kelly Imhof is a portrait photographer currently living in Easton, PA with her husband and daughter. She is a freelance art buyer and photography editor…