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New church poll shows people still have strong spiritual attractions, less so to their churches

Doug Nadvornick/Spokane Public Radio
Spokane Episcopal Bishop Gretchen Rehberg and the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop Michael Curry met over the weekend in Spokane.

The Episcopal Church poll survey more than 3,000 Americans about their spiritual beliefs, habits.

A new survey done for the Episcopal Church finds the pandemic hasn’t dimmed peoples’ spiritual beliefs. But their fervor for the church and related activities has changed.

The Ipsos poll was one of the items on the agenda when the church’s presiding bishop, Michael Curry, visited Spokane last weekend.

“Some incredible things surfaced," Curry said. "Across the board, 84% of the American people said they believe Jesus of Nazareth is an important spiritual figure and has something to say worth listening to. That’s stunning. That was across the board. That was atheists who may not believe in God as well as theists. That was religious as well as non-religious.”

Curry says a similar percentage said they want a world where their children are treated equal to everyone else.

“Then when they were asked about Christian folk and the church. The 84% of ‘Jesus is a great guy’ kind of dropped down below 50% and it was much more of a mixed bag," he said.

"One of the things people identified was that sometimes the church’s ambiguity of our race and racial inclusion and some of our history really creates some problems for people wanting to be positive about the church and faith. The other was young people, and this was something I hadn’t heard in any research before, young people had hesitancy because of the perceived quiet in the church around issues of climate change. That was a revelation. I didn’t see that one coming," he said.

Curry says church leaders are digesting the results and changing their messaging to reflect those beliefs.

“The Bible is clear about the climate, the psalm that says the Earth is the Lord and the fullness thereof. In the beginning, God created, this is God’s world and we dare not defile God’s world. That’s the Christian message, even if we fail to live it up. That’s the Jewish message. That’s an Islamic message. We actually agree on that and yet our young people don’t know it," he said.

Hear more of our interview with Bishops Michael Curry and Gretchen Rehberg.

Spokane’s Episcopal bishop, Gretchen Rehberg, says she’s not surprised by the findings. She says the church needs to get better at sharing its message.

“It’s about learning how to give the message of Jesus in a way that today’s culture can hear it and understand it and find it compelling, not to be fake in that, because evangelism at its heart is helping somebody to find what you found. We do this with restaurants all the time, right? Best restaurant in town, let me tell you about it, or a good movie. But we’re shy about speaking about Jesus," she said.

Rehberg and Curry say they’re not that worried about what the survey results say about the institution of the church. They say people will continue to worship and at least some churches will change as their parishioners’ attitudes evolve.

“We need to say we’re not asking you to come and change. This is a place where you can be known and loved for exactly who you are. This is a church that welcomes and affirms as beloved children of God, all God’s children, trans, the whole rainbow spectrum, the whole colors, whether you’re rich or poor. We need to say that clearly," he said.

She uses an analogy of the church as the bones that give structure to their patrons’ faith.

“If our institutional, external bones don’t show that, of course you’re not going to trust us and that’s where we need to make sure that the bones that give us the ability to move are not broken," Rehberg said.

Listen to more of our interview with the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, Michael Curry, and Spokane Bishop Gretchen Rehberg.

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.