The sharp decline of American Christianity has been widely publicized.
What has been less publicized, or even discussed, is why this is happening.
To many who are not religious, or not particularly religious, there is an unspoken assumption that Christianity is a vestige of the past – for them, not us. For then, not now. At the other extreme, those of us within the Christian church have long been reluctant to explore the vast societal shifts that have fundamentally changed the world around us. Or, even worse, sometimes we have willfully buried our heads in the sand, refusing to admit that the world around us is changing at all. Because of this, far too many Christians lack vital information for doing meaningful ministry in the world today. We lack the most crucial information of all – the facts on the ground.
The first step is admitting that we have a problem.
The second step is asking why?
While survey projects such as the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey and the National Study of Youth and Religion can provide us with much of the crucial information we need to understand the shifts in our culture, they cannot ultimately tell us why any of this is happening, or what it means. In the end, only we can do that.
So what – if anything – can we learn by looking at the data, the “facts on the ground”?
The first thing we should notice is that while the attention grabbing headlines trumpet the decline or even death of religion, this is a less than accurate conclusion. In fact, when we begin to look at the data, we find a much more complicated story. For instance, while church attendance, daily prayer, and belief in heaven and hell are all down among younger generations, the number of Millennials who say they believe in God is still around 80%. For Older Millennials it is even higher – 84%, just 8% lower than their grandparents.
Perhaps the reports of religion’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
When we really dive into the data we discover something absolutely astonishing. In spite of the headlines, many of the traditional markers of religious engagement and spiritual health are not decreasing at all.
They are increasing.
When we look at the percentage of Americans who say they read scripture at least once a week, we see that there is absolutely no change from 2007 to 2014, holding steady at 35%. Over the same period of time, we see that the number of people who regularly participate in a prayer scripture study or religious education group has actually increased.
These are strange trends for a time when religion is apparently “dying”.
But this only begins to scratch the surface.
From 2007 to 2014, just seven years – and the same period of time that “religious affiliation” dropped by 7% – the number of people who say they turn to religion as their primary source of guidance on right and wrong increased by 4%. And during those same seven years, the percentage of people who said they turn to science as their primary source of guidance dropped…by 7%!
But here’s where it gets interesting.
When we look at how frequently people say they experience a feeling of wonder and awe about the universe, or deep spiritual peace and well-being, the numbers are up – and not by a little. In fact, from 2007 to 2014 both of these statistics are up by 7%, demonstrating a clear, rapid shift towards something hopeful, unexpected, and new…
When it comes to religion, what is really happening today is far more complicated than the headlines will tell you – and far more hopeful.
Sure, people are leaving churches in record numbers – churches built on 20th century models, using 20th century assumptions, to answer 20th century questions. But why should that be the only indicator of the health of religion today? Why should that, more than any of these other things, be the one that takes priority?
And - perhaps most challenging to the traditional church - is it purely accidental that the decrease in religious affiliation between 2007 and 2014 almost exactly statistically matches the increase in people's other indicators of spirituality? In other words, maybe people are not so much leaving their spirituality behind as they are exploring the next mature step of that journey?
Maybe what has been diagnosed as death is actually just another chapter of the story.
This has, after all, been known to happen before.