The recently published ARIS report, comparing religious data in the United States in 2008 with the same data from 1990, revealed a number of important facts that Christians who care about the health of the church and the nation should be concerned about. Yesterday, I wrote about the growing presence of the "nones," now fastest growing religious preference in America. There is other important data to be noted in this same report.
Roman Catholicism has declined 1.1% since 1990. This is somewhat surprising since their has been a large-scale increase in Catholic immigrants into America during the same period of time. The reasons for this decline are probably numerous. The sex scandals plainly hurt the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. And the liberal trends in Catholic higher education have failed to catechize and strengthen Catholics at the parish level.
Baptists have declined even faster, from 19.3% to 15.8%, a drop of 3.5%. This is a huge decrease and is reflected in the considerable decrease in baptisms and additions in the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). There could be a number of reasons for this large decrease but I am inclined, based on both hard data and anecdotal opinion, to believe the "political struggles" in the SBC have added to this decrease! The conservatives won the power, at the national level, but this win seems more hollow by the day. It raises a perennially important question: "At what price do we wage war with fellow Christians about power and control of institutions and seminaries?" Conservatives will argue that the battles were essential and that the in the longer term the SBC will be stronger for it. Moderate, or more liberal Baptists, will argue that in unity the SBC knew much greater freedom and the mission agencies did much better without the two decade-long struggle for the heart and soul of the convention. I am inclined to believe both sides have a point but I lean toward the belief that such struggles almost never result in stronger and more effective mission.
What about Islam in the U.S.? Ihsan Bagby, an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky suggests that all such surveys under-count Muslims. This just might be true given the way data is collected and how Muslims might respond to being interviewed. One thing is for sure, Islam is growing but probably not as rapidly as some suggest who want to promote fear and reaction.
There are now 2.8 million Americans who identify with dozens of new religious movements (NRM). These groups include Wicca, a contemporary form of paganism (in the right sense of this historic term) that includes goddess worship and reverence for nature. Wicca has recently made its way into the Arlington National Cemetery where the five-pointed star symbol can be used on veteran's gravestones.
Perhaps the most interesting insight of all was offered by co-author Barry Kosmin who concluded from the 1990 survey that many Americans saw God as "a personal hobby" and America as a "greenhouse for spiritual sprouts." After analysis of the 2008 data Kosmin says, "religion has become a fashion statement, not a deep personal commitment for many."
I find that comparison consistent with what I've seen over the past eighteen years. I began the wider, national ministry of ACT 3 in 1991. By 1992 I began to travel to every region of the country. I have spoken in many culturally and religiously diverse contexts, to small groups and large gatherings. I have talked to older adults and to my own generation. I have also listened to the under-35s. While many under 35 are profoundly interested in a deeper spirituality their number is clearly declining. And the overall effect is that most lack "a deep personal commitment" to Christ or any other person or faith.
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My church recently carried out an interesting project. We found 22 young people from the community (mostly students), all in the 18-35 age group, to participate in one-hour interviews about their beliefs. We asked lots of open-ended questions about their views of life, death, faith, formative experiences and attitudes toward modern Christianity and Bible-believing Christians. Once they realized that this was not simply a ploy to try to “convert” them, they really opened up and spoke their minds. We recorded these interviews and edited them into a feature-length video documentary that we showed privately to our members at a church retreat.
The results were fascinating and disturbing. In this (non-representative) sample of 22, there were 3 Protestants and 2 Catholics who seemed to be deeply grounded in their faith. The other 17 attached a variety of of religious labels to themselves (Lutheran, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist), but those labels revealed little about what they actually believed, and in some cases those self-described labels changed over the course of the interview. Many saw themselves as being interested in spirituality and skeptical of organized religion. Many of them seemed willing to learn about and try out different religious traditions. But it did not appear to me that any of them was actively searching for a spiritual home. For the most part, they resembled hard-core homeless people who will accept a meal and shelter for the night, but want to go back out onto the streets the next day. They seemed committed to a life without commitment.
The overall signs are distressing but I have more joy and hope than I ever have as a minister of 23 years.
Not just the local church I serve in but the area-wide churches I fellowship in, I see a deeper desire for God, sacrificial service and outreach (even if by a growing minority) whereas before their seemed to be little life much less any concern for the unchurched.
I saw a young married couple baptized into
Christ this month. I will be baptizing twenty inmates this weekend and I actually “see” more unity and holy dependence upon God than I have for a long time.
God is up to something in our neck of the woods and its exciting thing to behold.
I like the analogy to “hardcore homeless”. The more I think about it, the more I believe that most of us in America now make our religious choices based on how we see ourselves as individuals. Rugged individualism is the bane of community. I believe it was Abraham Lincoln’s father who was attributed with saying that “it is time to move when you see the smoke from a neighbor’s chimney.” I think we tend to surround ourselves with church communities which represent our politics, social strata, or other definitions. Most people in America could not tell you the difference in belief between their group or another. Most people do not come to church to learn and be transformed, but rather come to a place where there is a good and comfortable fit. I am not sure that religion is a “growth industry” and that may indeed be its salvation.