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The rise of the ‘nones’

EDITOR’S NOTE: “WorldView Conversation,” the blog related to this column, can be read at http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com/. An audio version of this column is here.

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Dear pastor: I’ve been praying for you.

As if your 24/7 ministry weren’t challenging enough, the economic crisis has you working hard to reassure church folks who have lost jobs and homes — or fear losing them. You might be wondering where your own job will be this time next year.

You’re probably not in the mood for yet another report on the rise of American secularism. Even so, I recommend two new perspectives on the changing American scene. They contain some enlightening information about the potential future hurtling toward your church.

The “American Religious Identification Survey 2008” (ARIS), released in March, was conducted by the Program on Public Values at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. (Read more at www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org/). The national survey found the percentage of Americans claiming no religion has nearly doubled since 1990 to 15 percent of the adult population. (The number of non-religious Americans jumped from 8.2 percent in 1990, to 14.2 percent in 2001, to 15 percent last year.) Those claiming “none” as a religious preference increased in every state, every race and every ethnic group.

The “nones” aren’t necessarily atheists or agnostics; only 1.6 percent of Americans specifically chose those categories to describe themselves. Many “nones” consider themselves personally religious or spiritual, but they tend to shun denominations and organized religion generally.

Self-identified “Christians” of all varieties still comprise 76 percent of the adult population, according to the ARIS report. But that percentage has fallen more than 10 points since 1990. (It went from 86.2 percent in 1990, to 77.7 percent in 2001, to 76 percent in 2008.) Most of the recent decline (since 2001) has come among the dwindling “mainline” Protestant denominations. Roman Catholic numbers also fell nationwide. Baptists of all varieties, the largest non-Catholic American faith group, have grown by 2 million since 2001, but continue to decline as a percentage of the population.

The numerical growth that has occurred among American religious believers has come primarily among people identifying themselves generically as “Christian,” “Evangelical/Born Again,” or “nondenominational Christian” (more than 8 million Americans now put themselves in the third category). These three groups have expanded from 5 percent of the population in 1990 to 11.8 percent in 2008.

“(T)he alleged decline of Christianity is largely occurring within mainline denominations, while many of the theologically conservative and Pentecostal churches are thriving,” writes Konstantin Petrenko in the online magazine Religion Dispatches. “If this trend continues, American society may find itself increasingly polarized between evangelical Christians and the ‘nones,’ creating a fascinating, albeit potentially explosive, cultural dynamic.”

So, the pundits waving the ARIS report around as more evidence of the imminent demise of U.S. evangelical churches are wrong — at least for now. But what about the future?

In a much-discussed piece published March 10 in The Christian Science Monitor, Michael Spencer predicts a “major collapse of evangelical Christianity” within 10 years that “will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.” (Read it at http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0310/p09s01-coop.html).

Spencer, a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, warns that this supposed evangelical collapse “will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

“Millions of evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.”

Hysterical alarmism? Quite possibly. Spencer offers little evidence for his assertions. At the very least, his 10-year timetable for doom contradicts the slower religious and cultural shifts in the United States indicated by the ARIS report and other recent studies.

As to outward opponents of evangelical faith, there’s no shortage of them in America — and many of them would love to silence the church’s voice in the public square altogether. But this isn’t the Middle East or the communist world, or even secularized Europe. We still have a Constitution and a vibrant tradition of freedom of speech and religion.

Spencer, however, eloquently diagnoses one self-inflicted wound that could kill us. In his words:

“We evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing and media have produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey Scripture, the essentials of theology or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures…. Even in areas where evangelicals imagine themselves strong (like the Bible Belt), we will find a great inability to pass on to our children a vital evangelical confidence in the Bible and the importance of the faith.”

Christian pollsters have been telling us essentially the same thing for years. Are we listening?

If we fail to make disciples, biblical disciples, of our own children, will we be able to transform an increasingly pagan culture at home — or continue taking the Gospel to unreached cultures across the world, as God commands? Unlikely.

Collectively, we should seize on these hard times to take a long, Lenten look inward. Let us ask God how we can become more faithful disciples, how we can share our faith more authentically with our own families, how we can become a brighter, purer light amid the gathering darkness of our times.

“Despite all of these challenges, it is impossible not to be hopeful,” Spencer writes. “We need new evangelicalism that learns from the past and listens more carefully to what God says about being His people in the midst of a powerful, idolatrous culture.”
Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board.

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  • Erich Bridges