Perhaps not gone; but a new study of cultural-religious trends in the United States points to a seismic shift in U.S. Religious engagement.
Churchless, a new book by George Barna and David Kinnaman, draws on more than twenty years of research and more than twenty nationwide studies of the “unchurched.”
I read the book a couple days ago and strongly recommend it. Great material for an adult discussion group….The United States is undergoing a major shift in religious interest and practice. The findings (which resonate with other studies of religious trends) are a clear challenge to religious leaders. For an ever-growing number of contemporary Americans (and Europeans and others as well I suspect), the old theology, the old rituals, and the old institutional church structures just don’t communicate the good-news of Jesus anymore. Critical institutional leaders, I guess, can just dismiss studies like this; but they do so at their own risk….to say nothing about ignoring their vocation as messengers of Christ. The impact of what’s going on here will be far bigger than the sixteenth century Reformation.
The percentage of unchurched adults in America, since 1990, has risen from 30% to 43% of the total population; and the numbers are rising. It is a major religious climate change. The Barna study highlights five religious trends, which I briefly summarize:
1. America is becoming post-Christian.
Nearly two-fifths of the nation’s adult population (38%) now qualifies as post-Christian. In other words, in spite of our “Christian” self-descriptions, more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice. Traditional religion leaves them cold; and the younger the generation, the more post-Christian it is. Nearly half of the Millennials (48%) qualify as post-Christian compared to two-fifths of Gen X-ers (40%), one-third of the Boomers (35%) and one-quarter of the Elders (28%).
2. People are less open to the very idea of church.
Barna research suggests that the unchurched are becoming less responsive to churches’ efforts to connect with them. Barna’s tracking data stretching back to the 1990s reveals a slow-growing calcification of unchurched people toward churches. For every outreach method surveyed, the unchurched are less open to it today than they were two decades ago.
3. Churchgoing is no longer mainstream America.
Churchgoing is slowly but incontrovertibly losing its role as a normative part of American life. In the 1990s, roughly one out of every seven unchurched adults had never experienced regular church attendance. Today, that percentage has increased to nearly one-quarter. Buried within these numbers are at least two important conclusions: 1) Church is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to millions of Americans, and yet 2) the churchless are still largely comprised of “de-churched” adults: people who once found meaning in church but not anymore.
4. There are different expectations about church involvement.
Another intriguing shift among the churchless has to do with their expectations about church involvement. In the early 1990s, nearly 7 out of 10 adults, if they were to visit a church, would be most interested in attending the Sunday service. Today, weekend worship services remain the most common entry experience, but only slightly. Only 57% of churchless adults say they would be interested in attending some firm of Sunday worship. Today’s unchurched are more likely to say they would prefer attending some activity other than the Sunday services.
5. There is skepticism about the churches’ impact on society.
When the unchurched were asked to describe what they believe are the positive and negative contributions of Christianity in America, almost half (49%) could not identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community, while nearly two-fifths (37%) were unable to identify a negative impact. Of those who could identify one way Christians contribute to the common good, the unchurched appreciate their influence when it comes to serving the poor and disadvantaged (22%), bolstering morals and values (10%) and helping people believe in God (8%). Among those who had a complaint about Christians in society, the unchurched were least favorably disposed toward violence in the name of Christ (18%), the church’s stand against gay marriage (15%), sexual abuse scandals (13%) and involvement in politics (10%).
Perhaps our religious leaders (at all levels) should stop telling people what to do and start listening to them instead. Start to really listen to them…..especially to young people….listening to their contemporary lived experiences and their genuine search for meaning and purpose in their lives.
We used to say Vox Populi Vox Dei: the Voice of the People is God’s Voice.
We just need to open our ears…….