While you may not have noticed, we pastors have been fretting over a Pew Research study this week—a sequel to survey that pegged numbers of people who self-identify as religious or not. The research shows a dramatic drop in numbers of Christians since 2007, (a trend any churchgoer could probably have told you) coupled with a dramatic rise in the number of those who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Among those who self-identify as Christian, Mainline Christians (that’s us) have seen the steepest decline in the percentage of the population, from 18.1 to 14.7 percent. Those who self-identify as religiously unaffiliated has gone from 16.1 to 22.8 percent of the population, and seem poised to become the nation’s largest religious (or non-religious group) subcategory, with Evangelical Protestants representing 25.4 percent of the population. Evangelicals declined in total percentage of the population despite increasing in raw numbers.
I’ve already referenced my friend and seminary colleague Rob Rynder’s great summary of “what should (and shouldn’t) we do about the decline,” and I would echo everything he said. Instead of using my time to repeat or expound on his right on the money ideas and approach, I’ll join Diane Rehm’s guests and throw out a few thoughts as to what I see as some reasons for the surge in unaffiliated population coupled with the decline in self-described Christians. Some of it may sound harsh, but based on the data I’d say it’s time for an about face.
- We’re off message—As I’ve referenced in sermons before, a great indicator of the disenchantment with the church, particularly among the younger generations, is summarized in the top three responses to the unchurched population’s view of Christians. According to UnChristian: What a New Generation Really thinks about Christianity….And why it matters, in which David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons speak to the data collected by the Barna Research group, those three characterizations of Christians are that we are antihomosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical. It seems the non-religious world views us as exactly the opposite kinds of people that Jesus prompts us to be (hence the fairly accurate hypocrite label that I think someone really prodded a bit with nuance when they came up with the church sign
- We fumble around at meaning-making in a secularized world. Our customs are built on the foundation of mystical understandings of the world around us-understandings that the scientific world seems to contradict. We privilege ancient stories over modern and post-modern ones, and we wonder why the non-religious culture fails to connect. We use terminology that is self-referencing and incomprehensible. We tell our story in a way that overwhelmingly references the past instead of the present and future. Meanwhile, churches that try to “get hip to the culture” frequently throw out the baby with the bath water and keep things in the shallow end. We especially need to reinvent meaning-making among the younger generations. While the age component of the Pew Study shows an increase in people walking away from faith life across the board in age categories, the declines are more dramatic the younger the generation goes. Older Millennials (born in the 80s) self describing as religiously unaffiliated rose from 25 to 34 percent between 2007 and 2014. Younger Millennials (born in the 90s) clocked in at 36% Those same groups identifying as Mainline Christian in 2014? 10 and 11 percent.
- People walk away from faith when they feel they can’t ask anyone in their own religious communities the big questions without being ostracized. The leader of Oklahoma Atheists attributed the increase in non-religious people to the growth of the information age. As people simply turn to Wikipedia for answers regarding subjects of faith or religion, the focus becomes more turned to the quest for information rather than what the winsome small group study titled “Living the Questions.” If people turn to the internet when faced with faith life questions rather than the community, it might be that we’ve already lost. How do we create the impulse to instead bring questions of faith to small groups or to the pastor’s office? It should be clearly articulated that just because you’re in church doesn’t mean you’re going to get a “churchy” answer. Creating a culture of honoring a question or a point of view is the highest calling of Christian Education—and I can guarantee you that no one’s ever been shamed or laughed out of my office. On the contrary, I see questions of faith to be an indicator that someone is actually thinking about their faith—and I encourage that. I can’t necessarily give you the answers to life’s questions, but I can share them with you.
- Why bother? The end of that last bullet point reminded me that the largest number of religiously unaffiliated aren’t atheists or agnostics—it’s not that they’ve thought about their faith and dismissed it. They simply don’t care for it. Some are “apatheistic”—that is they don’t really care about much of anything beyond material pleasures. Some are moderately, or even heavily involved in social justice and would make common cause with the Church’s aims (had we not lost our focus on the substantial things as well). The church has failed to catch their attention, or prove itself to be worth their time. If we keep focus and rediscover how to be worth their time, perhaps we’ll see a revival.