The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life just released the results of an exhaustive study on the current state of religion in America. The research does not paint a pretty picture.
Among the findings:
- “The United States is 78 percent Christian and about to lose its status as a majority Protestant nation, at 51 percent and slipping.”
- “More than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another religion or no religion at all.”
- “One in four adults ages 18 to 29 claim no affiliation with a religious institution.”
- “The majority of the unaffiliated — 12 percent of the overall population — describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” and about half of those say faith is at least somewhat important to them.”
- “The Roman Catholic Church has lost more members than any faith tradition . . . roughly 10 percent of all Americans are ex-Catholics.”
- “Non-denominational churches are growing.”
- “Although evangelical churches strive to win new Christian believers from the ‘unchurched,’ the survey found most converts to evangelical churches were raised Protestant.”
- “Atheists or agnostics account for 4 percent of the total population.”
- “The group with the worst retention is one of the fastest growing — Jehovah’s Witnesses. Only 37 percent of those raised in the sect known for door-to-door proselytizing said they remain members.”
These findings suggest several important lessons for churches today.
- Despite the effort to remain “relevant” over the last several decades, usually by providing all kinds of social activities, American churches are increasingly viewed by Americans as irrelevant. For all its good intentions, the social gospel is a failure; it does not address the deepest needs of humanity.
- Evangelism efforts directed at converting members of other churches are facing a shrinking market. Increasingly, churches must adapt their message to reach people who have little or no religious background.
- Religions built upon a highly authoritative command structure (such as Catholicism and Jehovah’s Witnesses) have the most difficult time holding on to members, while churches with the least authoritative command structure (non-denominational) are bucking the trend and growing.
Put all of this together, and a simple picture emerges: People find the greatest fulfillment in a religion that emphasizes personal spirituality without bureaucratic control. Do a fresh reading of the New Testament, and you’ll find that’s exactly why early Christianity became so popular. It consisted of independent local churches that were dedicated to a simple program of character development.
I suspect the same approach would work today, if churches would only try it. Of course, it would require that a lot of very powerful people give up their positions of prominence, so I don’t expect a mass movement in that direction.