Locals seek alternative spiritual paths, shun traditional churches
Floyd Johnson believes in God, but like a growing number of Arizonans, he thinks organized religion is far from divine.
Once a Presbyterian who considered entering the ministry, Johnson says he backed off because of the church’s position on some issues and failure to act on others.
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Now, he insists that getting him through the doors of any church isn’t going to happen.
“I do not believe in any of the churches organized by man,” the 70-year-old Peoria resident said. But, he added, “I still accept the teachings of Christ in a very philosophical sense.”
Johnson joins a growing group declaring their freedom from religion, churches and pastors _ but not from God. The numbers are so alarming they have clergy scrambling for answers as their congregations walk out church doors looking for spiritual answers elsewhere.
“It’s like watching a slow earthquake develop right before your eyes,” said Bobby Brewer, outreach pastor at Scottsdale Bible Church. “How do we stop it? I’m not sure anyone has the answer.”
A new book on religion and public life calls Arizona one of the least religious states in the nation. Several recent studies also indicate a strong trend away from organized religion, including one by the Glenmary Research Center in Nashville, Tenn., that showed less than 40 percent of Arizonans attend church regularly, compared with just over 50 percent nationally.
The reasons people bail out of churches are as numerous as the empty seats on Sunday morning.
Preconceived notions, past experiences and evolving lifestyles and values all have a role in declining church attendance, said George Barna, a Christian pollster and head of the Barna Group.
“Existing churches simply cannot reach millions of today’s unchurched people,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t trying.
Steve Bass, state missionary for the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention, said his church is trying to embrace new methods to spread the gospel, including home-based churches with lay leaders.
Tom Jelinek, pastor of Los Arcos United Methodist Church in Scottsdale, says Methodist congregations have used a program called Sidewalk Sunday School to reach out, especially to underserved communities. The program invites people to non-traditional services, usually held outdoors.
“One of biggest challenges for mainline denominations is to really speak clearly that religion offers other alternatives,” Jelinek says.
What the church won’t provide, people like Marie Whiting of Peoria are finding on their own.
Whiting, 48, walked away from organized religion and a 30-year ministry in a variety of churches after tiring of what she called a menu of fad diets and easy-to-digest messages.
“If all we give people is dessert, they won’t be healthy,” Whiting said. “It is the same in the church; people receive the same type of milky message wherever they go, and they want a balanced diet.”
Today, she is part of the home-church movement, meeting with and sometimes leading a group of about 25 people, often twice a week.
Joan Robinson-Blumit of Phoenix turned away from what she termed to be male-dominated churches and embraced Wicca, an earth-based, non-Christian belief system that emphasizes female elements of God and the significance of natural life.
“I come from a Christian background and I still believe in God,” she said. “But leaving ‘church’ meant leaving the whole patriarchal scene for a kinder, gentler, more balanced faith expression. ‘God’ lost the ‘he-only’ status years ago.”
For Brian Ritter, 31, of Peoria, religion was just short on answers.
“I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene, but I reached a point where I started asking questions,” he said.
“The questions were either too hard or too sensitive, because church leaders either didn’t know the answers or wouldn’t say.
“If religion was open and objective enough to discuss these questions, I might go to church.
“But they treat you like you are the worst person on the face of the Earth if you raise questions.”