For the past decade, Christian groups have been sounding the trumpet, calling our attention not only to the decline of Christian influence in the west, but also to the remarkably fast growth of those who reject any religious affiliation. Within the past five years alone (2007-2012), we have seen a 5% increase among the nonreligious in America, bringing their numbers to nearly 1 in 5.
Atheist groups have pointed to this trend as evidence that their movement is gaining steam, that atheists and agnostics are coming our of the woodwork in staggering numbers, and that the hope of a better civilization is found here, in a future driven by reason. Of course, only a fraction of the nonreligious openly claim themselves as atheist or agnostic, but since these terms often carry social stigma as baggage, the argument is that claiming to be “nonreligious” is really a more socially acceptable form of claiming atheism. If this is true, the fact that 20% of the population identifies themselves apart from any religious affiliation should be staggering to us as Christians.
For a number of reasons, however, this designation has never set well with me. I am reminded that Buddhists, for example, reject the notion that Buddhism is a religion and instead label it a philosophy. Buddhists would claim to be nonreligious. Hinduism similarly tends towards a different identity, rejecting the label of religion. Hindus would claim to be nonreligious. Even among Christians, we have seen within the past few decades a sweeping movement towards distancing Christianity from the legalism and institutionalism which often comes attached to the religious label. Thus, we see a massive growth of those who claim that “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.” Christians, too, would claim to be nonreligious.
So, then, what exactly do these numbers mean? Thankfully, I am not the only one asking this question. Near the end of 2012, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religious and Public Life, in collaboration with Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly, conducted an extensive study and released their findings in a report which looks at this very question (You can find the complete report here). The results might surprise you.
The Real Picture of the Nonreligious
Contrary to popular notions that this meteoric rise of the religiously unaffiliated exposes an increasing rejection of belief itself, the overwhelming majority of these individuals are, in fact, believers. According to the study:
Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day.
This means that of the 20% who reject religion, only one third of them also reject God. In fact, the study goes on to show that the rise of atheism is almost negligible, coming to less than a 1% increase within the overall population. Combining both agnosticism and atheism into a singular percentage, we still have no more than 6% of the population in America who reject the belief in a deity. In fact, when considering devotional behavior, the study looks back at 25 years of survey material and comes up with this little gem:
Over the longer term, Pew Research surveys find no change in the percentage of Americans who say that prayer is an important part of their daily life; it is 76% in 2012, the same as it was 25 years ago, in 1987.
In other words, “nonreligious” does not mean “non-believer.” So what should the church make of this?
What This Means for the Church
This changes the way we think about evangelism. Despite what we would gather from increasingly vocal anti-religious activists, the central threat to Christian belief is not intellectual credulity, nor is disbelief the norm. Rather, the central threat to Christianity in America is credibility. We have a serious image problem. I found this passage to say it all:
With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.
Unfortunately, they may be right. The power of the Christian faith is not in convincing words or entertaining services; it is not in legal moral dictums or passionate political lobbying; it is not even in telling people about the Messiah, unless we first allow the face of Jesus to be seen shining through the Body of Christ. The power of the Christian faith which overturns orders, transforms lives, and changes worlds is found in a transformed people who live collectively in ways that expose and challenge the prevailing ideas of wealth and power and oppression, replacing privilege with service, wealth with charity, and violence with enemy-love.
In short, we need to reclaim the importance and value of the Church by actively becoming the Church again.
What do you think? How can the church reclaim its relevance in today’s world?
Image Credit: Sean McGrath