Daily Blog Email
Yesterday, the Pew Research Center published an article examining why the United States’ population share of religiously unaffiliated adults is growing.
Greg Smith and Alan Cooperman write in the opening paragraph of the piece:
The share of Americans who do not identify with a religious group is surely growing: While nationwide surveys in the 1970s and ’80s found that fewer than one-in-ten U.S. adults said they had no religious affiliation, fully 23% now describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”
For many, this is no surprise. If you ask just about any evangelical Christian in a local church, “Would you say our country is becoming more Christian or less Christian, what would you say?” the evangelical Christian will say it is becoming less-so.
So, the secularization of the United States is no surprise. But…
First, it should be made clear: the majority of people who identify as “religiously unaffiliated” are not leaving a life of serious commitment to Christ. Pew provides this table of data in their latest article:
The table above tells us that the growing portion of religiously unaffiliated adults is coming from those with “low” and “medium” religious commitment. Of the two percent of Americans who have a “high” level of religious commitment between 2007 and 2014 no longer identified as “Christian,” one percent of them adopted a non-Christian faith, and the other called themselves “religiously unaffiliated.
People are not “leaving the church” in droves because the people who no longer identify as Christians likely weren’t showing up to church in the first place!
When I was in college, I was annoyed when I realized how many people call themselves “Christians,” but would admit that they are rather apathetic about their faith and their involvement in the local church.
While I pray such people would become more, not less, interested in the gospel, it is somewhat refreshing to see a significant portion of the American population actually start making up their minds about this “Christian” thing.
Check out this second table from Pew:
The most fascinating part of this chart is the first section up at the top. That section is showing us the religious affiliation of “low religious” commitment Americans across generations.
Seventy-nine percent of Millennials who have a low commitment to religion call themselves “religiously unaffiliated,” where as only 64% of Boomers are willing to do the same.
Millennials are, quite frankly, more honest about their religious leanings than their parents or grandparents have been. This chart shows us that older generations would identify as “Christians” even though their commitment is not high. Such is not the case for Millennials. Young people who do not have a high commitment to religion are just honest: they call themselves “religiously unaffiliated.”
So…the logical next question is:
I have written on this before in a blog post called, “Millennials Are Leaving the Church They Faked Caring About as Kids.” I said:
Back in the day, it was “culturally savvy” to call yourself a Christian. It had cultural value—there were benefits to being a “Christian” in American society.
As a result, a lot of people called themselves “Christians” who didn’t actually possess true, convictional Christian faith.
These people are called “nominals,” or people who are Christians in “name only.”
Today, a number of years after “back in the day,” it is definitely not culturally savvy to be a Christian. People don’t like Christians in most parts of the country. It costs a lot more social currency to be a Christian than it used to.
As a result, many of the people who called themselves “Christians,” simply because it was more beneficial than costly to do so, are starting to check “none” on the list of faith options on social surveys.
That’s basically what’s going on. So, you could say, nominal Christianity is declining, but you cannot say Jesus is losing followers.
The United States looks more religiously unaffiliated overall because, quite frankly, our most “religious” Americans are our oldest ones, and they’re dying. See this final table from Pew:
This chart shows the level of religious commitment by generation. In short, it shows that the younger the Americans, the less they are committed to religion, generally (not just Christianity).
Traditionally, the “mission field” has been seen as a remote village in Africa or perhaps a farming town in China. This can no longer be the case. The mission field is in our neighborhoods.
One could argue that America was once a “Christian nation” or maybe a country founded on “Christian principles.” But it is becoming more and more apparent that a nation that once valued matters of faith will not necessarily always value them.
We often misunderstand the secularization of our country to be a political problem, pointing to Supreme Court decisions or the passing of new legislation as the root of our increasing angst toward matters of faith. Because we believe the secularization of America to be a political problem, we look for political solutions.
This is foolish.
The secular political action being taken is the fruit, not the root, of an increasingly secular nation.
The American soul will not be won by the institution of a righteous judge in the Supreme Court, but by the proclamation of a gracious Judge in the heavenly court.
The proclamation of the good news that Christ died and rose to save the repentant sinner is the only hope in the battle for the American soul.
The United States is growing more secular, and how we act politically is important.
But, a ballot box is a poor substitute for an empty tomb when it comes to transforming the hearts of people.