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The Religious Landscape Study: The Unsurprising News, the Bad News, and the Opportunities

May 13, 2015 | Generalities

The Pew Research Center has come out with its new report on the Religious Landscape Study. The full report is worth a read: check it out! Now, let the teeth-gnashing commence!
It seems that many people want to immediately characterize the study in black and white terms: is it good news or bad news? Or maybe it’s not-so-bad news? I will take a stand on at least one of these: it is NOT good news. Some may say, “It’s not as bad as we feared!” Some Evangelicals may be saying, “We’re not doing as badly as everyone else!” But this is not good news. Thankfully, we know that the good news comes from somewhere other than social science research. This report is descriptive not prescriptive. It is left to us – as theologians, church leaders, and concerned Christians – to decide what to do about it.
Burying our heads in the sand is tempting, but it is not an appropriate response for a church that is called to go out into the world (Acts 1:8). Neither is it appropriate to dismiss the data or shake our heads unbelievingly, since every indication is that this study provides valid, reliable data. This is a nationally representative study that can be applied to (almost) the entire U.S. population with a very low margin of error (+/- 0.6%). This study will be talked about for many years to come, and church policies will be shaped, in part, because of the data in this study. Don’t ignore it!
The news out of this study is not good, and I would not even go with the optimistic “not-so-bad.” However, I would call this news unsurprising. Many studies have shown that the percentage of people in America claiming to be “Christian” is declining. This is across the board and includes every major Christian group. Roman Catholicism and Mainline Protestant denominations are declining rapidly (each dropping a little more than 3% in their share of the total U.S. population since 2007), while Evangelical Protestant denominations are declining more slowly (losing about 1% of their share of the U.S. population since 2007).
Equally unsurprising is that younger Americans are less likely to be religious than older Americans. Of those born in the 1980s and 1990s (“Millennials”), only about 57% consider themselves Christian, compared with nearly 80% of those born in the 1940s and 1950s (older “Baby Boomers”). More than 1/3 of Millennials claim “no religious affiliation.”
The only religious group that continues its steep growth is the group claiming no religious affiliation, the notorious “NONES,” which now make up nearly 23% of the total population (up from 16% in 2007). This growth is tremendous and represents a major cultural shift that Charles Taylor describes in his compelling definition of the word “secular.” He refers to the new secularity not as the absence of religion but rather as a reality in which being religious is seen as one option among others. In other words, people no longer feel the need to affiliate with a religion. It is telling that only 1/3 of those claiming no religious affiliation claim to be “atheist” or “agnostic.” The remaining 2/3 (16% of the total U.S. population!) just claim “nothing in particular.” Religion is either not on their radar, or it is an a la carte option that they have passed by.
Many people want to make the European comparison, claiming that the U.S. is on track to become as secular as Europe. Full stop. We can compare individual trends to Europe, and we can probably gain some insight into the religiosity of the “nones” from Europe, but it is foolish to claim that American religiosity is going to look like Europe in a few decades. We are also foolish to paint all of Europe with one brush, as religion looks very different across the various cultures of Europe. Some countries still have state-run, tax-supported churches. There is little room for broad comparison. Christianity is declining in terms of numbers, but more than 70% of Americans still claim to be Christian. Don’t call us a “Christian nation,” but don’t call us Europe, either.
A decline in total numbers of Christians is not necessarily bad news. These numbers almost certainly indicate that people feel more comfortable about being honest about their religious convictions. They do not feel obligated to claim a religion. As Christians, we are concerned about discipleship. We want people to follow Jesus, not to simply say they are Christian. Those who attend religious services once a year or less and do not participate in religious practices are religiously inactive. It is probably okay that these people have stopped claiming to be Christian – it shows a growing understanding that people are not Christian simply by virtue of their parents taking them to church as children. Christians are called to live differently than other people. If the numbers in this survey indicate the slow demise of a social Christianity, that is not-so-bad news.
If people are becoming more honest about not being Christian, maybe the church can start being more honest about what it means to be Christian.
I think there is a lot of bad news in this survey, but I will highlight two points. First, declining numbers of Christians means less money. Every indication is that this trend will continue, and Christian institutions have already tightened their belts a lot. Churches, camps, and other ministries are closing. Less money means that many faithful Christians will continue being concerned about self-preservation, which is a decidedly un-Christian thing to focus on (see, for example, the entire Bible, but especially that bit about Jesus). As more money is spent on preserving the status-quo, less is spent on mission and ministry. Less money for the poor. Less money for victims of violence, oppression, and natural disasters. This is bad news, and it is something to mourn.
Second, Christianity in America is changing demographically in a very concerning direction. While all Christian groups are declining, the Mainline and Catholicism are declining most rapidly. This means that a far greater percentage of American Christians are part of Evangelical denominations. Evangelicals now make up 55% of Protestants and 36% of all Christians in America. They comprise the largest broad religious group in the United States, just ahead of the “Nones.” I am not here to bash Evangelicalism. There are some incredibly faithful expressions of Christianity in the Evangelical traditions, and Mainliners like me can learn a great deal from our Evangelical brothers and sisters. The reason I am referring to this as “bad news” has to do with rhetoric. The gospel of Jesus Christ becomes obscured behind a cloud of anti-homosexual, anti-science rhetoric, and this problem is compounded with the political discourse. Evangelicals have always been vocal (hence, the name), but their growing share of the Christian public is causing Christianity as a whole to be painted with an ultra-conservative brush that is not only unpalatable to the majority of Millennials, but it is also simply not the gospel. It is bad news when the good news is obscured. It is bad news when people think they know what Christianity is about based on hateful rhetoric and then refuse to even listen to the good news.
My initial thoughts about this study are that Christians have an opportunity to redefine what it means to be Christian in America. If Americans are becoming more honest about their religious beliefs and are less inclined to be part of the institutional church merely for social or utilitarian reasons, we have an opportunity to share an authentic expression of Christianity that involves loving enemies, helping the poor, seeking justice for the oppressed, and bringing good news to the hopeless. The study shows pretty clearly that people care less and less about denominational boundaries. We have the opportunity to stop emphasizing how we are different and focus more on how we are the same.
In a secular world, as Charles Taylor defines it, religion is optional. Less people are coming to church because they feel obligated, and this is not a bad thing. We have the chance to tell people why they should come. Why be a Christian? Why follow the way of Jesus? We may even find ourselves becoming evangelical about our faith.


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