Post-9/11 spiritual revival may be lagging, but people are reviewing their priorities

It’s been a distressing, violent year since hijacked planes plunged into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. The months since then have brought a whole crop of pain around the world — suicide bombings in the Middle East, retaliation in Palestinian villages, war in Afghanistan, Hindus and Muslims attacking one another in India, a Russian plane filled with children falling from the sky, to name just a few. And, in the United States, economic news so bad that almost everyone knows someone who’s lost a job.

People joke darkly about whether it’s better to open the financial statements and see how bad it is, or just blindly throw them into a box and hope things get better.

There was, after last Sept. 11, some sense that perhaps the terrible loss might provoke spiritual soul-searching, might cause people to think intentionally about where their lives are going, what matters most to them and what they should change. Many pastors now say they haven’t seen a widespread spiritual revival. But the difficulties around the globe — the violence, sometimes in the name of religion; the AIDS epidemic; the economic pangs, not just in the United States; the injustice and suffering — do raise in some people’s hearts a new longing for the mercy and presence of God, and a questioning about how they should put what they believe to work in God’s world.

“Everything that’s happened in the last year has underscored the question of what role religious life is going to play in the world; is it going to unite us or divide us, blow us out,” said Jim Chatham, who’s just retiring as pastor of Highland church, Louisville, Ky., after 25 years of service. At his congregation — which has made involvement in the community a priority, deliberately cutting across lines of race and income and geography — some of the programing over the past year has intentionally focused on those issues, and “people are more acutely asking the question, ‘Just what does my faith mean to me?’” Chatham said.

At National church in Washington D.C. — not far from where the Pentagon was struck by the terrorists — the attendance was higher on Sept. 16, 2001, the Sunday after the attacks, than it ever had been, even at Easter. People came every night to pray — they showed “an insatiable thirst for worship,” not caring what kind of service was held, “they just wanted to be in the presence of God,” said M. Craig Barnes, who recently left as senior pastor at National to teach at Pittsburgh Seminary. The congregation instituted a Wednesday night Eucharistic service. And in the months since then, Sunday after Sunday, worship attendance at the church has been up about 20 percent.

Close on the heels of Sept. 11 came the anthrax scare — the impact of that in Washington was particularly intense — then the Enron and WorldCom fiascoes and the escalating violence in the Middle East and the stock market slide. “It just feels like everything is unhinged,” Barnes said. Even when the violence happened far away, “part of what 9/11 did was make that local news,” he said. “That’s our news now. It could happen to us.”

At the same time, however, some people show a remarkable ability to push from their minds troubles that don’t directly affect them. Gary McGrew, pastor of the Bridgeport, W.Va., church, was vice-moderator of this year’s General Assembly Committee on Peacemaking and Global Issues. The committee discussed matters ranging from the damage caused by landmines to U.S. policy towards Iraq, but it’s not always clear how much attention ordinary Americans pay to international concerns, said McGrew.

While people’s hearts are stirred by the images of violence and suffering they see on television, “there’s also been a great desensitizing,” McGrew said. Confronted by images of dead Israelis and Palestinians, some people throw up their hands and say, “It’s always been like that.” “I’d like to think people are still shocked and appalled, but I’m afraid I’ve grown cynical,” he said, suspecting that many don’t concern themselves much with what’s happening beyond their own part of the world.

Still, as a pastor, McGrew sees an obligation to raise up for his congregation the theological implications of world events. In West Virginia, for example, the changing economy began hitting home in the 1980s. By now, “all of these folks have been affected, either directly or someone in the family has been laid off, shifted around,” McGrew said, producing “a nervousness” about who will be hammered next.

McGrew said he’s tried to respond by preaching about the bigger picture, reminding folks that “where your treasure is, there will be your heart. It’s looking beyond mortgages and stock portfolios and seeing the quality of life through friends and family and church family, an emphasis on community rather than the individual.”

In the U.S., there’s such an emphasis on individual success, but the Bible teaches about caring for all of God’s people, “not just your own house, your own family,” McGrew said. “I think that’s a pretty difficult message to convey, but it’s certainly the biblical emphasis.”

David Bennett, a student at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Massachusetts, also served on the Peacemaking and Global Issues Committee, and said the committee’s discussions left him wanting the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to do even more to tell people around the world about Jesus. He’s unhappy, for example, with the denomination’s recent decision to reduce by 34 the number of international missionary workers, achieving the cuts through attrition.

To Bennett, the church’s response to a troubled world should be timeless and uncompromising: the life-transforming Christian message of salvation through Jesus Christ.

The church’s response to tragedy and violence should be “the gospel of Jesus Christ that meets our needs, the message that God has promised to meet all our needs,” Bennett said. “We’ll be giving the answer that has been the answer for 2,000 years. There’s a real danger in giving an answer that waters down the gospel, that God can be known in multiple ways.”

Across the country, many churches will open their doors on the anniversary of last year’s terror attacks — calling people again to prayer and reflection and remembrance. In the weeks after the attacks, their impact was palpable — like the smoke hovering over the remains of the World Trade Center in New York. But time distances the immediacy, adding a veneer of “normal” days stacked over the horror. People now climb back on the airplanes in packs every day, back to the routine, chatting on their cell phones until the very last minute.

In New York, Auburn Seminary, along with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and First church, New York City — one of the Presbyterian congregations close to Ground Zero — will host a forum on Sept. 10 to ask people from a range of vocations and faith to talk about “what is the truth that has been revealed to us” through the terrorist attacks.

“There has been change, but not in the ways I think people thought we would change,” said Bill Golderer, director of Auburn’s Center for Church Life. Golderer recently moved his residence from one part of the city to another, and was convinced by his encounters with New Yorkers during that move that the post-9/11 city is not a “kinder, gentler New York.” But Golderer said he has sensed a keener interest in hospitality — in spending time with one another — and a deepening investment in relationships “that are life-giving and a real discarding of disposable relationships, a kind of honing, a kind of auditing of relationships.”

The last year also erased any sense that Americans are somehow protected from international terrorism. The attacks last September “made everybody a lot more sober and realistic about how tenuous life is,” said Chatham, the Louisville pastor. “What 9/11 did was prove how closely we’re related to the rest of the world . . . . There’s a vulnerability everyone feels.”

But “what I’m missing is any sense of repentance, how we should act differently towards the rest of the world,” and what changes should be considered in U.S. foreign policy and in personal behavior, Chatham said.

For many Americans, that sense of vulnerability now extends to personal finances as well. People who’ve worked hard and saved their money have watched their college and retirement savings and economic security dwindle away. And the corporate scandals have raised ethical questions of what’s fair and what’s not in the quest for money.

At Central church, Atlanta, Paul Osborne, the director of Christian education, is making a deliberate effort this year to blend an emphasis on peacemaking into the curriculum and is raising questions of what impact advertising and consumerism have on spiritual development.

Often people feel overwhelmed by the troubles of the world, perhaps thinking “I’ll do this little thing” or “I’ll try to make a difference in this place,” but not having the stamina to worry about the rest, Osborne said.
Some people think of peacemaking as only confronting direct issues of violence — war, for example, or terrorism. In July, however, Osborne was involved as a leader at the PC(USA)’s Peacemaking Program Conference at Montreat, N.C. The conference theme was “The Lion, The Lamb and a Little Child: Building Peace in a Violent World,” and it explored the impact that pervasive problems such as hunger, poverty, abuse and lack of medical care can have on the lives of children.

At Central church, Atlanta, a class for parents of young children will talk this year about making peace in the household — about the importance within families of caring for one another, patience and mutual respect.
Osborne said he’s also interested in how advertising and a culture driven by technology and entertainment affect people’s sense of what they want and what they need. “I think the spiritual is an intimate and risky and frightening thing, it’s giving control over,” of saying “give in, let go, God is in control,” he said. “I think advertising is constantly selling us control, over our own pleasure and our own time. To me, it’s not so much that the cell phone is inherently evil” (“I love my cell phone,” Osborne admits) but that advertising drives people always to want the latest, greatest, newest cell phone, so they forget “not only our own spirituality but the hurt of the world.”

But Barnes, the former pastor from National church, Washington, said he continues to see a hunger for worship in people who feel uneasy about what’s happening in their world.

“It recreates the world for people as envisioned through the eyes of God,” Barnes said. “What they leave worship with is a sense that the world is God’s world . . . . It’s not flying free, he still holds it in his hands. And as long as we have that, we’re going to be OK . . . . It’s been a good year to be living in faith.”