“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Perhaps you’ve heard or read a news item on the findings of a new report on religion in America published by the Pew Research Center. The link to America’s Changing Religious Landscape appears here. The main point reported is that the number of Americans who identify as Christians (a/k/a disciples or Christ-followers) has decreased by roughly eight percentage points over the past seven years. At the same time, the number of Americans who declare themselves atheist, agnostic or otherwise unaffiliated (a/k/a the “nones“) has increased by nearly seven percentage points over the same period. This latter group comprises over a third of the millennial cohort.
Let’s begin with the facts. First, the most significant decreases in Christian affiliation seem to be among the historic mainline denominations. These groups decreased by 3.4 percentage points over the previous seven years. Those identifying as Roman Catholic also decreased in number, falling three percentage points.* Evangelical Christians — whether denominational or non-denominational — declined by less than one percentage point, and historically black churches remained similarly stable.
So far this is not surprising, as anyone who has been part of one of the mainline denominations knows that this is a continuation of a longer trend. Speaking only about the changes among self-identified mainline protestants, I can say that these denominations have been the most liberal in their theology and hold the least authoritative view of scripture. Although they may have strict teachings on recycling, they tend not to make many demands on their members, preferring instead a therapeutic approach to spirituality. More on this in a moment.
The change in affiliation is more pronounced among millennials and intensifies among the youngest adults. I won’t pretend that this is news, either. When I was a youth group leader two decades ago, older church members lamented that the young people would likely leave not just our mainline denomination, but the church altogether once they went to college.
What is new is that a larger percentage of these young adults raised in the church no longer feel even a sentimental attachment, preferring to declare as something other than Christian. This does not necessarily signify the absence of a spiritual life, however.
Was it something we said?
The Pew report doesn’t explain the reasons for the changing religious landscape, and apart from my first-hand observations, I am not prepared to offer a definitive explanation. I will say, though, that this is a moment for the church to examine itself — especially as it fulfills its mission to proclaim the good news to every people group in every generation. We must speak the truth in love — and in a way that connects with people as they are, where they are.
The New York Times opined that Christianity’s teachings on traditional sexual morality have alienated younger people — particularly over issues such as same-sex marriage. If that were correct, the more conservative segments — specifically evangelical Protestants — would see the sharpest declines. Instead, those churches with more demanding teachings regarding personal holiness are holding steady as a percentage of the population, even as they increase in absolute numbers.
Fair weather friends?
I was part of a congregation that left a denomination (amicably) over the issue of baptism. The main point of contention was that adults whose nominally Christian parents had baptized them as infants wanted to be baptized as believers.
Faithful people can and do disagree over matters such as these, but I bring this up because 20th century America accomplished something the church fathers never imagined — a society in which following Jesus was no longer counter-cultural. In the first century many Christians became martyrs because of their allegiance to Christ. In the 20th century, all nice families had their children baptized and showed up at church from time to time because it was what decent people did.
Perhaps we are entering a period where, once again, Christians will have to choose between allegiance to Caesar and faithfulness to Christ. The church in such a climate will no longer be the club of the comfortable and the connected. Although it is nothing anyone would wish for, persecution of the church has nearly always resulted in growth. Christians are experiencing persecution around the world; perhaps we should no longer expect to be immune.
Faithful churches should not shilly-shally, nor should we tell skeptics and spiritual seekers that following Jesus is without cost. We are, after all, called to take up our cross — the instrument of His death for us — and follow Him. If we or our neighbors aren’t yet ready to accept this, it’s better that we are all honest in how we identify ourselves. This is certainly better than playing church.
You can’t be half-pregnant
If you’re one of the “nones” and you’re reading here, welcome! Please continue to visit and feel free to comment and subscribe. I have no intention of trying to trick you into believing in Jesus, nor of arguing you into His kingdom. But I do hope you’ll consider the unique claims of Christianity and the facts that support them. And I hope that as you do, you will become convinced enough to trust Jesus to be your atonement.
If you’re visiting a church while you work through these questions, don’t stop. But please recognize that the act of going to church is not what makes you a Christian any more than going to the zoo will make you an elephant. Since our faith resides in a relationship, you can’t sort-of be a Christian. You are or you aren’t.
A vibrant marketplace
There are more options than ever — and you are still free to choose what or whether to believe. That’s a function of moral agency and free will. Your church-going neighbors’ heads aren’t going to explode if you tell them you’re an atheist.
I have heard some people say it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you really believe it. I call B.S. (i.e., Biblical Supremacy) on that idea. If you are sincere in your belief about something wrong, you are sincerely mistaken. What you believe — about God, about life, about yourself, about your place in the universe — matters a great deal.
It’s not like cramming for a doctrine exam. As God reveals Himself in the Bible, we see Him as a righteous judge, but also as a loving Father who scans the horizon for His lost sons, who actively seeks to rescue them from their own foolishness and restore them.
St. Augustine said, “Our souls are restless until we find our rest in You.”So if you are honest in seeking Truth, God will meet you in your quest. And when you know you’re loved, believing and following Him become much easier.
So how about you? What tribe do you belong to — and why? Add your comment below.
*I would appreciate any Catholic readers’ insights into the likely causes of the decrease in Catholic affiliation. I can speculate, but would prefer an inside perspective.