A recent survey done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life has made quite a splash in several circles. Among other things, the study shows that there are significant numbers of people switching religions or religious affiliations during their lifetime. One may grow up Baptist, but it is becoming more likely that they will spend most of their adult life as unaffiliated with a denomination or a religious title.
In USA Today, Stephen Prothero has some insightful things to say about how the religious landscape is changing, and aside from some rather silly political barbs, I think he has some important things to say. First of all, he is right when he notes:
The USA is rapidly becoming a culture of customization.
Not just with our careers, fast food and clothing, but with our own brands of spirituality as well. He also notes what may be the vital reality for churches to understand:
The key subplot here is the rise of "nones," a category growing faster than any other religious group. Of all adults in the USA, 16% say they are religiously unaffiliated, while 7% were raised that way. Moreover, 25% of younger Americans (ages 18-29) report no religious affiliation at all.
What does the rise of the "nones," particularly in Western states and northern New England, demonstrate? Not the sickness of religion in general but the health of a new kind of religion — a more personal and less institutional form often parading under the banner of "spiritual but not religious," an option that, among my Boston University students at least, seems as popular as the smoothie stand in the student union.
So the “nones” are not committed to nothing, or even to atheism, but to not being committed to a denominational or religious structure. Due to whatever sets of reasons—dissatisfaction with the authenticity of churches and pastors, recent moral scandals, the way churches spend or don’t spend money, or just the raw individualist drive—more and more people are avoiding close association with churches.
But there was another finding that Prothero noted:
Another story buried in the data of this new survey is the power of evangelical Protestantism, and particularly non-denominational churches. Of those surveyed, 44% called themselves "born again" or "evangelical" Christians, and among religious options non-denominational Protestantism is one of the fastest growing.
So there may be some bright spots in this after all. But the question needs to be posed and answered well: what is a church to do in this kind of atmosphere?
HT: Albert Mohler