My column two weeks ago was next to a New York Times story with the headline “Big drop in share of Americans identifying as Christian.” USA Today headlines blared, “Christians drop, ‘nones’ soar in new religion portrait.” CNN, not to be undone, shouted “Millennials leaving the church in droves, study finds.” Dozens of other headlines tried to outdo each other with hyperbole. But what’s it all about?
These stories sprang from the May 12 release by the Pew Research Center of the results of its 2014 Religious Landscape Study. That report was titled “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” (see tinyurl.com/ldnxabw). The subtitle of the report was “Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow.” The study compared the similar 2007 study with 2014 study results. Summary comparisons by major religious group brought the results into clearer focus. The change results for this time period were: a 0.9 percent drop for evangelical Protestants, an increase of 6.7 percent for unaffiliated, a decline of 3.1 percent for Catholics, a 3.4 percent drop in mainline Protestants, and an increase of 1.2 percent for non-Christian faiths.
These results were not unexpected, and tend to confirm the much-heralded observation that current generations are “spiritual but not religious.” They seek an experience that mirrors their own quest for meaning in life. For many, this means embracing elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Hinduism, and other philosophies. Two weeks ago I visited an Anchorage church that represented this approach. I believe we will see more such congregations develop over time.
The Pew results, for the most part, are largely accounted for by the 6.7 percent rise in the unaffiliated. The breakdown of this group is that atheists rose from 1.6 percent to 3.1 percent; agnostics rose from 2.4 percent to 4 percent. Those who identified as “nothing in particular” rose 12.1 percent to 15.8 percent. All three of these groups fall into the “nones” category referenced in the USA Today headline.
One very interesting side note in the study is the finding that most Christians are women, while most “nones” are men. Certainly this is evident here in Alaska where many men stay away from church to pursue weekend pleasures such as fishing, hunting, boating, snowmachining, etc. During my hundreds of church visits over the years, I’ve personally observed the lack of men attending church services.
I particularly enjoy reading the various blogs and reports Ed Stetzer releases. As executive director of LifeWay Research, he is up to date on research and observations that hit the nail on the head. In 2012, I heard him speak at ChangePoint. He delivered a persuasive talk, one of the best I’ve heard in a long time. (See my ADN blog post at tinyurl.com/osxktqv.) Stetzer wrote an opinion piece in USA Today on May 13 titled “Survey fail — Christianity isn’t dying: Fakers who don’t go to church are just giving up the pretense” (See tinyurl.com/mezw62g).
In it Stetzer argues that “Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified. Churches aren’t emptying; rather, those who were Christian in name only are now categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction and engagement.” He further points to a recent Gallup poll (See tinyurl.com/pucbsnt) contending weekly religious attendance is “about where it was in the 1940s — hardly a statistical collapse.” Stetzer does point out that “Evangelical Christianity is growing in America,” but that’s only in absolute numbers, rising from 59.8 million to 62.2 million, while dropping in percentage points as a share of total U.S. population. He points out that nominal Christians, those in name only, are dropping out and indentifying as unaffiliated. Noting the study indicates this rise coming from Catholics and mainline Protestants “religious traditions with high numbers of nominals. Among adults who claim no religious affiliation, 28 (percent) were raised Catholics, while 21 (percent) grew up Mainline.”
The Pew Forum overview itself points out “To be sure, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans — roughly seven-in-ten — continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith.” Stetzer importantly points out that self-identified evangelicals grew during this same period of time. On Stetzer’s blog last week, in “Nominals to Nones: 3 Key Takeaways from Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey” (See tinyurl.com/njatv77), he lays out an argument with points such as “Convictional Christianity is rather steady … There have been significant shifts within American Christianity,” and “Mainline Protestantism continues to hemorrhage.” He ends with “Christianity is losing, and will continue to lose, its home field advantage; no one can (or should) deny this. However, the numerical decline of self-identified American Christianity is more of a purifying bloodletting than it is an arrow to the heart of the church.”
Stetzer and LifeWay are respected for their research and conclusions. I mentioned his presentation at ChangePoint only because it made sense. It’s hard to say whether or not that community will take, or did take his advice to heart, but despite your personal feelings about ChangePoint, they do typify many of the hallmarks of what convictional Christianity is and can be.
In my opinion, we are in for a wild ride. We may understand this all better when Robert Wuthnow, noted Princeton sociologist whose latest book, “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith” comes out Oct. 1. It promises to question “why it has become easy to take all of these results for granted. Response rates have plummeted, push polls done by robotic-calling machines have become more frequent, and sampling has become more difficult. A large majority of the public doubts that polls can be trusted.”
My visits to area churches do indicate a shakeout is taking place. I’ve been fortunate to have visited many congregations where faith is not taken for granted, but is seriously pursued and practiced. Many times it is located in smaller groups where insightful delving and discussion about faith and its origins can take place.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.
The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.