On a recent morning I surveyed religious news from around the country. That day an Oklahoma man was arrested for plotting to blow up 48 churches. While taking advantage of its tax-exempt status, dozens of evangelical churches openly defied the law, and challenged the IRS to defend it, by endorsing Mitt Romney from the pulpit. Meanwhile in Michigan, a pastor who claims Romney, a Mormon, is not a Christian, gave the invocation at a rally for vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, creating another unwelcomed controversy for the church.
But the biggest headline, perhaps not unrelated, reported a study finding the fastest growing denomination in America is “none-of-the-above” i.e. people claiming no religious affiliation whatsoever. One in five Americans, it said, does not identify with any organized religion. For the first time since researchers began tracking these things, fewer than half of Americans said they were Protestants. That’s a precipitous decline from 40 years ago, when more than two-thirds of all Americans claimed a Protestant church affiliation.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted the survey. They found the decline is not just among liberal mainline Protestants, like Presbyterians, Methodists or Episcopalians as many thought, but has also characterized conservative, evangelical and “born again” congregations. The “canary in the mine shaft” may have been the finding that more than one-third of those between 18 and 22 years-of-age are religiously unaffiliated and are fast replacing an older generation that has been traditionally far more involved with the church. Those young adults will soon be raising children who will likely have even less of a connection to the church. The Pew numbers will predictably look far worse in another decade.
Of course, “worse” is a value judgment. This study will generate a lot of hand wringing and religious leaders will attribute the numbers to what some like to call “the break-up of the family” and liberal cultural tendencies. Some will double-down on a strategy of using government to impose religious ideals on what they see as a secularized nation. Instead, the church would do well to exchange its window on the culture for a mirror. Self-examination is in order.
The study indicates it’s the church, not God that these Americans have abandoned. Two-thirds of those polled say they still believe in God, and one-in-five prays every day. Many are fully engaged in the community, contributing time and money, making deep personal commitments to homeless shelters, youth mentoring programs, equality and justice advocacy, and the hands-on mission work of programs like Habitat for Humanity, Circles and Wyoming Family Home Ownership. If attendance at “Bibles and Beer” is any sign, there’s no lack of interest in Bible study even among those who don’t attend church.
Church is becoming a place where young people feel they do not have the opportunity they seek to live out their purpose. What they hear from the pulpit and experience in the pews is often at odds with how they see God working in their lives and the lives of others. Increasingly they leave the church, a place they find often requiring them to make an irrational choice between science and religious ideology. Frequently their interest in Bible study wanes in the wake of literal interpretations at odds with their actual and deeply personal experiences of God’s creation.
On every major issue of the day ranging from interfaith relationships and marriage equality to climate change, abortion, racism, poverty and war, these young Americans read the Sermon and the Mount and contrast it with sermons they hear from the pulpit. They crave the former and flee from the latter.
Once when Woody Guthrie checked into a hospital, the nurse asked his religion. He said, “All.” She said, “You have to choose one.” Guthrie said, “It’s either all or none.” Now a lot of folks are choosing “none.”
The numbers won’t be the same a decade from now. Neither will be the church. These numbers tell us it’s time either for either a funeral or another reformation.