Religion has fallen on hard times in America. The percentage of those who claim to be religiously unaffiliated has increased dramatically in the past two decades. Katherine Bindley, writing in the Huffington Post, reports that religion has reached a low point in America. She notes the percentage of “nones” or religiously unaffiliated people hovered around 5% when such surveys were first taken in the 1930s. By the 1990s this number had climbed slightly to 8%. Since then the number has risen rapidly to 20%. Even more telling, about a third of those under the age of 30 claim no religious affiliation.
The conventional wisdom in the 1990s was that Mainline churches, which asked little of their members, were dying while Evangelical churches, which asked for a deeper level of commitment, were thriving. Those seeking stronger religious community and more doctrinal certainty were attracted to more conservative, Evangelical or Pentecostal churches. Others joined traditional Catholic churches for similar reasons. This explanation, however, overlooked other factors affecting the changing religious landscape in America.
Increasing numbers of people were leaving their home communities to go to college, to get a job, or to retire in a warmer climate. As a pastor I have been aware of how easy it is for parishioners to just drop out after a major move. Those of us who have lived in the same community for all our lives have to go against social and family pressure to drop our religious affiliation. Conversely, those of us who move to new locations have to seek out another faith community. Former church members who moved to a new place sometimes sheepishly tell me they just can’t find a church that fits who they are. They gradually stop looking and become unchurched.
Yet another increasingly common reality is that a growing number of people have been turned off by the strident religious culture wars during the past several decades. Some of us carry deep scars from those wars. A common perception is that religious people are intolerant and allied with reactionary political movements. Some young Christians tell me they’re reluctant to identify themselves as Christian around social peers. They feel a need to explain that they’re “not that kind of Christian.”
At the same time, our increased mobility makes many feel disconnected and lonely. We long for more authentic community and greater spiritual depth in our shallow consumer culture. Churches that nurture such community can be a welcoming oasis for spiritual seekers. To be authentic these religious communities need to be places where we can address and respond to the great social, environmental, and spiritual challenges facing our world. We will wrestle with how faith in Jesus leads us to respond in caring and life-giving ways. Faith communities that do that will not be hard pressed to attract new people.