Mayor’s Corner: With Tom Briggs

As a baby boomer, I was raised during what is now looked upon as the beginning of the end of the golden years of traditional Protestantism. In my small town of 2,000, there was a Methodist church, a Baptist Church, a Presbyterian Church, and an Episcopalian Church. There were less “traditional” churches as well, such as the Christian Missionary Alliance and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Each of these churches during the 1950s and 1960s had healthy enrollments, as did the Catholic Church, which conducted several masses each week to accommodate its large congregation. These were robust faith communities that, though offering differing Christian doctrines, served as places of worship and ostensibly as training grounds to learn how to practice and venerate the “golden rule.”

At the time, these churches were considered safe havens where, at least one day a week, families would gather, worship, and focus on behavior that would be pleasing to God. They served as gathering places for parishioners to socialize, re-energize, and share challenges and joys. Their clergy gave voice to the threat of hellfire and brimstone as a means of curbing undesirable behavior. But the majority spoke of love and forgiveness and the value of selflessness as tools to inspire the positive conduct of others and by doing so, effect a more compassionate world. Today, though many of us realize that those mid-century ‘”golden years” favored some more than others, we should not devalue the aspirations of those who were well intended.

Fast forward sixty years and we are witnessing the countrywide implosion of the traditional Christian church as well as other religions. In Franklin, the Methodist Church, due to attrition, has closed its doors. The Episcopal Church has been reduced to a small but courageous band of parishioners who are attempting to stem the tide of attrition. The Community Bible church is also having some difficulty in maintaining a thriving church community.

Why has this decline happened and why should it be of concern?

There has been a proliferation of articles and books on society’s diminishing interest in religious activities. Here are some of the points cited by researchers of this phenomenon:

Modern day science and historical research have called into question the efficacy of biblical accounts, weakening the power of the message by focusing on the flaws.

“Because I said so” no longer holds water with modern day thinkers.

Traditional religious services cannot compete with the “hyper sensationalism” generated by contemporary media.

Sports and other activities geared toward children have usurped the traditional Sunday morning church-going regimen for families.

Cell phone and tablet use have affected our attention span when it comes to oratorical presentations.

News of scandalous behavior, greed, cults, and political extremism have eroded trust in religion.

Today’s “pilgrims” are more attracted to personal spiritual growth through mediums like yoga and Zen.

Congregants are perceived to be judgmental, making visitors feel unwelcome.

People are uncomfortable when confronted with things metaphysical.

Where have all the children gone?

I’m concerned about the decline in participation in this village’s faith community because I think it bodes poorly for Franklin’s collective sense of well-being, as it does across the country. In an article in Psychology Today, it is reported that the suicide rate nationwide has risen by 35% in the last twenty years. Leading factors include loneliness, social disconnection, and the availability of firearms. The incidence of suicide is certainly a leading quality of life indicator. In a study entitled “Association Between Religious Attendance and Lower Suicide Rates Among US Women” (TJ VanderWeele et al), which included 90,000 women between age 30 and 55 over 14 years, it was found that attending religious services was associated wiith a five-fold lower incidence of suicide compared to those never attending religious services.

Rob Whitley, Ph.D, also in Psychology Today writes the following: “The amassed research indicates that higher levels of religious belief and practice (known in social science as religiosity) is associated with better mental health. In particular, the research suggests that higher levels of religiosity are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and suicidal behavior. Religiosity is also associated with better physical health and subjective well-being.”

In the Community Development Journal, Garth Simpson states that spirituality in the community aligns with the values and principles that underpin robust community development. His findings suggest that spiritually healthy individuals impact the well-being of the collective (the community) and vice versa.

Just as it is important for people in the greater Franklin area to support the various community organizations through volunteering and gifting, the faith communities are struggling and are at the tipping point and need an infusion of new and energetic members. And by no means do I want to disregard Jews or Muslims or persons of other faiths in this column. The research applies to members of all faith communities. We value their presence in Franklin.

In my opinion, we will have difficulty maintaining a balanced and healthy village without an assortment of faith communities as one of its components.

The former United Methodist Church may reopen if a startup group calling themselves the Open Doors Church can continue its progress. The Franklin Episcopal Church, though small in numbers, has a dedicated congregation that has worked hard to raise funding to support the church as they anticipate new members. The Community Bible Church has upgraded their facilities and continues to have an important presence in the village. Though the doctrines may vary, their diversity is beneficial in reaching local residents with differing spiritual needs.

In this oppositional world, where people have difficulty finding common ground andwhere information has been reduced to misleading micro bites, I find it reassuring that havens still exist that offer refuge from the predatory world that we live in.

If these faith-based sanctuaries cease to exist, where next will we turn to gain a sense of meaning and belonging?

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