The numbers are sobering. The quickly-changing American mindset is a wake-up call. And it’s taking most churches by surprise.
What numbers? The ones that say the number of Americans who reject any religious affiliation has grown from 6% in 1992, to 23% in the most recent survey. If that’s not startling enough, the number is even higher when talking with young adults – where 35% say they aren’t connected to a church or any religious community. And while the rise of these “Nones” (those who identify as atheist or agnostic, or simply say their religion is “nothing in particular”) is most dramatic among young adults, the Pew Research Center has found that this trend also is occurring across the board. All generations are showing an increasing disconnect from church life, as are a cross-section of racial and ethnic groups. The raw numbers look something like this: about 36 million Americans were unaffiliated in 2007. Just seven years later, that number is up to 55 million.
For those of us who believe that Jesus is the center of AND source of life, these numbers are a big concern. But as it turns out, this change also has a societal impact, too. In an intriguing article in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart writes that the increasing disconnect from church is also leading to an increasing disconnect in civil society. Beinart contends that conservative white Americans who disengage from church often experience more family breakdown – and they grow more resentful and pessimistic.
Now, the question is: do people drop out of church because their family is struggling and they are feeling more isolated, or do people drop out of church and then find that their family struggles and feels more isolated? I suspect the answer is “Yes.” It’s probably not a one-way street, but a cycle. Leaving is easier when you’re struggling; leaving makes it harder to thrive and stay connected.
But leaving church also has the impact of making conservatives less trusting and less open to people who are different from them. Even though most churches are largely segregated along racial lines, most churches understand that this is not what God intends for the Church. As the New Testament letter to the Ephesians makes abundantly clear, Jesus breaks down any and all barriers that divide us. So, even though a church may be 95% white, there is a clear sense that Jesus didn’t die to establish a church that is separate, but equal.
But it’s not just conservative white Americans who are affected. Beinart points out that something similar is happening among liberals, where 73% seldom or never attend a worship service. In other words, 3 out of 4 Americans who self-identify as liberal are disconnected from any meaningful religious community. Again, it’s probably a two-way street. No doubt, folks who identify as liberal are less likely to attend worship. But it certainly must also be true that disconnecting from church life leads one to have less core, “traditional” beliefs (beyond the core cultural value of tolerance, which often extends toleration only as long as you see things the way I do).
My point isn’t to pick on folks who are left or right, but to recognize that belonging matters. Belonging to Jesus changes my heart and my mind. It gives me a new perspective, and leads me to love those who are different from me. This is because belonging to Jesus cannot be separated from belonging to each other. And what does it say when a secular cultural commentator like Beinart begins to notice that the rising disconnect from church is having a negative effect?
Even so, I don’t believe that the statistics should be cause for despair, anger, or withdrawal. Recognizing that Church is increasingly seen as irrelevant should not make us try to assert our relevance by yelling louder. Instead, I believe that we are called to see the challenges clearly, but then recommit ourselves to walk in step with our Master, follow him with each other (for His Spirit unites us in our differences), and reach out to those who think they are past Church – or that it has nothing to provide.
We live in tough times. We live in a post-Christian society. I think it’s vital that we recognize that. But then, having seen that, we should remember that, throughout history, it’s been during the most challenging times that the Church has gotten a clearer perspective on its identity, its calling, and its mission. For the human hunger, the human need for meaning and purpose will not go away. And, through the grace of Jesus, we have a place to point people; we have a person to point people toward.
For no matter what that numbers say, our calling remains the same: To live and love like Jesus – together, as the Family of Jesus, knowing how desperately we need him. As does our world.