Is Faith on the Decline in the U.S.? Yes … and no

Courtesty of Ross Douthat’s column (well worth a read, by the way), I came across this fascinating study. It contends that religious faith is not diminishing in the U.S. — rather, it’s nominal faith that is on the decline. The authors contend that it is those who loosely hold to their beliefs that are increasingly letting go of the traditional ways of expressing their faith.

Their first piece of evidence: a chart that shows that the percentage has remained essentially unchanged of those who have a “strong affiliation” to their faith — it has hovered around 40% for the past 25 years. During that same period of time, those who don’t have a strong affiliation have dropped from the mid-50s to just above 40%. And those who claim no affiliation has doubled in 25 years.

Likewise, church attendance is dropping among those who “attend sometimes.” Those who claim to “never attend” a church service now is a group that includes more than 20% of the population. But those who attend multiple times a week — while it is a small percentage of the population — is a line on the graph as straight as the lives of the people it represents.

And there are many more insights in the article. Take a look for yourself. It’s well worth it — even if only to look at the charts and what they represent.

And what they represent is fascinating. Yes, religious commitment in the U.S. is diminishing. But it is diminishing among those who are loosely affiliated, not among those who have a strong connection to their faith.

What can this teach those of us who would consider ourselves in the “strong commitment” category? For one (as the authors of the study themselves point out): We are increasingly preaching to the choir. We should expect that, as a general rule, fewer and fewer people in our culture who are not connected to church will consider giving church a chance. For most congregations, the “seeker movement” is over. Or probably should be. If you’re trying to keep your church on the cutting edge, you may only be reaching the religiously-interested-but-disconnected hipster; you’re probably not reaching the not-interested-thank-you hipster.

Which means, of course, that we need to increasingly find ways to engage others on their turf. We should not expect the “not-interested” crowd to come to us; we’ve got to go to them. Which, come to think of it, we should have been doing all along.

I was recently at a Bible study where I was told that one of its newest participants was a teacher, and had gotten connected because their church was so faithful to volunteer at her school. Bonnie noticed (not her real name), and the church’s love and concern for her kids reached her, and she began attending church. She then volunteered for the church’s weekend cafe, and had recently began participating in this small group.

Even though for 5 years now Bonnie has been in what this study would call the “strong affiliation” category — she still is figuring this faith-thing out. One of the passages we read that night at the study was from 1 John. Bonnie had prepared that week, and so had read it. Or thought she had; but instead of reading 1 John, she read from the Gospel of John. When she found that out, she said to all of us: You mean there’s more than one John? D–n! Later, the leader had us turn to Romans, and Bonnie asked, slyly but honestly, Is there more than one Romans?

As our society becomes increasingly secularized, those of us who have been around church for a long time need to extend plenty of grace to those who haven’t. Those who do get connected to church are going to come knowing a lot less about Bible and faith and God. Which to me means that if the Church is going to reach folks outside of the strongly committed segment, we are going to have to ramp up our discipleship and teaching ministries. The days of “feel-good” sermons and “fun-and-games” youth ministry are over. The next generation of believers is going to need much more than that.

And one more thought: We in the Church must first be known for what we are for, not for what we are against. If we are going to reach people with the love of Jesus, then we are going to have to lead with the love of Jesus. I mean: isn’t that what Jesus did? I find it immensely fascinating and instructive that the kinds of people Jesus ticked off were the kinds of people we often try to assuage. And the kinds of people Jesus went out of his way to engage, we often try to avoid. (For example, see Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown in Luke 4; or the next chapter in Luke, where Jesus heals a guy who can’t walk and gets into a row with some religious types; or the next chapter, where those same folks protest the timing of Jesus’ healings; or the next chapter where Jesus heals the kid of a hated occupier, and then lauds his faith; or the next chapter, where Jesus heals a demonized Gentile pagan, and then sends him out as one of the first missionaries. And that’s just 5 chapters in just one of the four gospels. If you need more examples of the ways Jesus interacted with the kinds of people we avoid, and avoided the kinds of people we tend to interact with, keep reading. There’s plenty more material.)

None of this is about criticizing the church, or those who work in it. I deeply value those who give themselves fully to lead and love others. It’s hard work. There are no easy answers. I know. I’ve been there, and I have the t-shirt to prove it (a bunch, in fact).

But it’s time for those of us who are strongly connected to church and faith — for those of who are serious about the call of walking in the way of Jesus — to find ways of engaging a culture that increasingly doesn’t care, and doesn’t know why it should. And it probably will be less about what we do on Sunday mornings, and more about what we do the rest of the week.

Wait like a Pharisee (sort of)

I’m a bad waiter. Not like at Cracker Barrel, though I probably wouldn’t get very many stars on my apron because I’d spill too many things on too many customers. I mean: I’m bad at waiting. I just don’t like to do it. No matter how much I try to remind myself about patience, and taking a breath, and receiving the moment as it is — I just don’t like to wait.

Which is probably why I need this season of Advent. For Advent is about waiting.

On Sunday, the worship leader began by reminding us of this fact. He talked about waiting; how it’s something all of us have to do. Immediately, his words clicked for me, and gave voice to what I’ve been feeling. That feeling of waiting. Waiting for a phone call or an email. Waiting to hear back on a job I’ve applied for, or an opportunity I’m exploring. Waiting to see what my kids will become as they grow up. Waiting for loved ones’ health to take a turn. Or just waiting for peace. Or understanding. Or joy.

In my time of waiting, I’ve set a goal of reading N.T. Wright’s four-volume series, “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” I’ve started book one, The New Testament & the People of God. It’s full of fascinating insights, including Wright’s discussion of 3 of the sects who were active in the 2 centuries surrounding the birth of Jesus. Two of them we know from the New Testament (The Pharisees & the Sadduccees) and one we don’t (the Essenes). All 3 had 1 thing in common: their desire for the kingdom of God to come, for the Messiah to usher in God’s victory. But how they lived out that desire — or, we might say, how they waited — was what separated them from each other.

First, the one we don’t read about: the Essenes. They looked for the coming of the Kingdom, for a messianic rescue, but to prepare for it they withdrew from society. Seeing corruption throughout the religious and political systems, they separated and waited. They sought to live holy & pure lives, while waiting for God’s kingdom.

On the opposite end were the Sadduccees. Unlike the Essenes, they got right in the middle of religion and politics. Their desire for God’s reign came through trying to insert themselves wherever they could to make God’s kingdom come more quickly. Their version of waiting, in other words, was to make something happen.

Then there were the Pharisees. While we think of them in almost a completely negative light, they too sought the coming reign of God. Unlike the Essenes, they did not withdraw. Unlike the Sadduccees, they did not seek first power and influence. Instead, they sought to wait by living pure lives, while also working to influence religion and politics where they could. Now clearly, according to Jesus, the Pharisees took the wrong approach to purity; even so, their inclinations were grounded in good teaching. Purity matters. And so, in their “waiting” for the Messiah, they sought to live upright lives.

But they also were willing to insert themselves in the religious & political discussion (as they did with Jesus so often). Even though, as Wright points out, the Pharisees were not the official teachers of Israel (the priests were), they sought to use their influence where they could. Again, we see this in the New Testament, where the Pharisees colluded with the priests and teachers to do what they believed to be best.

Now, I’m not advocating anyone become a Pharisee, and they certainly misapplied a bunch of scripture. They did seem to get one thing right, though: their approach to waiting. For true, faithful, biblical waiting isn’t a matter of withdrawing until God does something (like the Essenes). But neither is it going out and making things happen, no matter what alliances we have to make or compromises we have to swallow (like the Sadduccees). Instead, I believe biblical waiting is both trusting God and seeking to place ourselves in a position to be a part of what He is doing.

For me, this is illustrated very well by John Ortberg, when he compares our spiritual growth to 3 different vessels on the water. When it comes to our waiting for God, there are 3 watercraft we can choose to use. The first is a raft. When you’re on a raft, you are completely dependent on the wind and the waves. There is nothing you are doing; you are completely at the mercy of the elements. Though it’s a bit of an exaggeration, we might say: the Essenes liked rafts.

On the other extreme, we can hit the water in a speedboat. In this case, we are in charge. We determine where we’re going, and how fast. The bigger the outboard motor, the happier the Sadduccees would have been.

But the watercraft Ortberg recommends is a sailboat, because in a sailboat, you’re not going anywhere if there isn’t some wind. But you’re also not going anywhere (or at least anywere useful) if you don’t set the sails. Even though they never got the hang of it, the Pharisees would have been good on a sailboat — if only they got what Jesus was telling them.

So, biblical waiting is not passively sitting around, but neither is it forcing something to happen. Instead, it recognizes that without the wind of the Spirit, I am going nowhere. But it also recognizes that I’ve got to set my sails to the wind; I’ve got to attune my life, and orient it to catch the breath of the Spirit. He moves; He leads; but I’ve got to be ready, to be listening, to faithfully wait for the Wind to blow.

So, how are you waiting?

You think?

I used to enjoy watching those political debate shows on television. You know the kind; the ones where they line up people on the right and the left (literally and politically), and they proceed to yell at, through, and around each other. For some reason, I used to enjoy that kind of stuff.

Not so much, anymore. Perhaps because I’m getting older. Perhaps because I’m less strident than I used to be. Perhaps because I have experienced enough angry people in real life that I’d rather not sit and watch them on TV, too.

But this week, I found another reason why I no longer enjoy people getting whipped up into a righteous lather: because it doesn’t work. Rare is the person who changes a position on something by being tongue-lashed into it.

I was reminded of this truth by a helpful new book: How to Think by Alan Jacobs, a Christian intellectual (and yes, those 2 words can go together, despite what some intellectuals think, and despite what some Christians think). Jacobs challenges us to actually stop and think about thinking; because, in fact, often that’s not what we do. Often, when we hear something we disagree with: we react; we assume; we pigeon-hole; we rely on categories and catchwords. In short, we do anything but think. Therefore, debates, whether they are on television or simply happen in the classroom or the cubicle, are often about anything but thinking; they are about winning.

In this vein, Jacobs describes how debates happen in the Political Union, a debating society at Yale University. There, the goal is to win, yes; but not by “scoring points.” Instead, the goal is to win someone over to your position. But that’s only one of the goals. There’s a second one: to be won over. That’s right: a debate where you win when you win, but where you also win when you lose.

The first win is described as “breaking someone on the floor” – where you change someone’s mind in the middle of the debate, right there in front of everyone. But the second win also involves a change of mind — yours. This is called “being broken on the floor” — where you are the one who changes your mind, out in the open, for everyone to see.

When members of the Yale Political Union are interviewed as potential society leaders, they are expected to have experience with both kinds of “wins” – changing someone’s mind, and changing their own. For, as a member of the YPU points out: Who, exactly, has perfect political and ethical ideas? Who among us, whatever age or education, knows everything about everything? In other words, why, when faced with truth, should we, unthinkingly, continue to hold onto error?

All of this came to mind today after I happened to watch the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” It’s well worth watching, though it deals with some heavy stuff. (In fact, just a heads-up: if you watch this movie, it will wreck you. At least it did me.)

The movie tells the story of two boys in World War 2 who happen to be on opposite sides of the fence. Literally. Bruno’s father is the commandant of a concentration camp. Shmuel is a boy on the other side of the wire; a Jewish prisoner in that camp. As the movie unfolds, Bruno and his family slowly learn what the camp is all about. Told that Jews are the enemy and that the camp is a legitimate part of the war effort, Bruno has to learn to face the truth as it comes at him in real and personal ways.

In other words, Bruno has to learn how to think. Not take what he’s heard; not simply swallow what he’s told. Bruno grows up as he learns to face what is — and think about what it all means.

Bruno’s naivete and innocence isn’t surprising; after all, he’s only 8. The same can’t be said for the German Church during the same period. History has documented for us how timid and unthinking the Church was in the face of Hitler’s rise. According to James & Marti Hefley, as Hitler’s Nazi Party rode roughshod over his parliamentary opposition, a group of German Christian leaders proclaimed, “We German Protestant Christians accept the saving of our nation by our leader Adolf Hitler as a gift from God’s hand.” They affirmed “unanimously our unlimited fealty to the Third Reich and its leader.” By 1936, even leaders of the “Confessing Church” (congregations who saw some of the wrongs being done) did not protest the requirement that German citizens take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and nothing was said about the increased discrimination against the Jews.

In other words, not thinking is dangerous. Only watching our favorite network is not thinking. Only listening to those we agree with is not thinking. Accepting the party line of our favorite politician or political party is not thinking. Accepting the spin by our favorite commentator, or even our favorite TV preacher, is not thinking.

In fact, I think that those who believe in truth — Big Picture Truth, what we might call “capital-T Truth” — should be the last ones to swallow the lines we are handed by those who have microphones, and instead should be the first to ask: But is that True?

We should do the hard work of listening and learning — as we seek out the Truth that is real, lasting, and available for all of us who are willing to really think about Truth.

Because here’s the thing: Truth never justs stays in your head. It gets lived out. Truth never just shapes how you think; it also changes how you live.

So, how are you living? It’s probably in direct relationship to how you’re thinking.