The release of the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Study has generated prominent headlines in the general and church media. “Christianity Faces Sharp Decline,” the Washington Post announced; “America is Getting Less Christian and Less Religious,” according to Huffington Post; and in Christianity Today, “Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles.”
These and other summaries have been shared via social media over the past few days. I have encouraged friends to move beyond the headlines and to dig more deeply into the data itself. The discoveries there are significant. In the United States:
- Christian affiliation is declining as a share of the population
- The mainline and Catholic Churches are experiencing the most significant decline
- The evangelical and historically black churches are experiencing a slight decline
- There is small growth in faiths beyond Christianity
- There is significant growth among the unaffiliated
- One-third of the population has a religious identity different from the one in which they were raised
- Two-thirds of persons who immigrate to the U.S. are Christians
- Anglos are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than blacks or Hispanics
- Men are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than women
Of course, beyond the data there is the matter of interpretation. I offer three brief comments.
1. We have clearly moved in most communities beyond a culture of church affiliation as conformity. A generation ago, it was acceptable and expected that one participated in a church in order to cultivate social, economic and political relationships. Ed Stetzer has distinguished between cultual, congregational and convictional Christians. The age of social conformity shaped cultural and congregational Christians, but lacked the capacity to disciple men and women into a convictional and practicing faith.
2. The increasing numbers of “dones” (those who no longer claim a Christian affiliation) is the result of two factors. We must first take responsibility; in the words of the confession, “we have failed to be an obedient church”. And so we are honest about the church’s self-inflicted wounds, evident in the harm we have done to each other. We should also note that the growth of unaffiliated has been shaped by the relentless critique of the church from without (the high culture of academia and the popular culture of film, television, drama and music) and within; in social media I am often taken by the default posture of cynicism and displaced anger within the church (and among the clergy), which takes the form of self-loathing.
But a third learning from the data, for me, is most significant.
3. The real shifts toward growth of the nones calls us to take seriously movements like Fresh Expressions in the U.K., which is a much more secular context than the U.S.
Here we can give up on the idea that if we passively wait for them, they will return. This was the inherent flaw in the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” campaign; it assumed that the “nones” and the “dones” would flow into our spaces and find us to be tolerant, open-minded people.
The research suggests that this did not happen, and is not likely to occur in the future. And so we are left with critical questions:
- Can we give a proper burial to the church of social conformity, whether it be marked by liberalism or conservative evangelicalism?
- Can we move from self-loathing into God’s future, one that is missional and experimental? Can we claim the affirmation voiced in our prayer, that God might “free us for joyful obedience”?
- And can we channel our resources — our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness — toward community-based forms of making disciples, who would transform, if not the world, at least the neighborhoods in which we live?
Ken Carter is the United Methodist Bishop appointed to the Florida Episcopal Area. He hails from Georgia with an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and a D.Min. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Ken and his wife Pam live in Lakeland, Florida.