Revival and the Next Generation – Part I
By George Otis, Jr.
Last Christmas, my sister gave me an interesting gift. It isn’t much to look at — just an acrylic cube containing about a hundred cards — but oh, can it eat up your time! The intrigue has nothing to do with games, because it isn’t a game — at least not in the true sense. Rather, each card offers up a provocative
“What would you do?”
scenario. And sometimes you really have to think.
What would you do if you had to decide between an immigrant who needed refuge or one who would make a significant contribution to society?
If our government knew that a deadly virus had entered the country, should they tell the public or keep it quiet to prevent panic?
The questions are a great conversation starter, and, more often than not, guests will work through a half dozen or so before closing the lid.
This got me to wondering. What is it about us — and I am talking now primarily about Americans — that finds these type of activities so delicious?
I can’t speak with certainty, but I suspect it has something to do with
curiosity of untested people
Unlike Venezuelans, Syrians, or North Koreans, very few of us have to face complex moral dilemmas on a daily basis. (Even the inner-city tensions of made-in-America cities like Chicago, Memphis, and Baltimore are beyond us.) And who among us has lost a wink of sleep wrestling over a decision that has the potential to put millions of lives at risk?
We may never have inhabited these scenarios, but we can’t help but wonder how we would handle ourselves if given the chance. And what better way to scratch this itch than through the gritty medium of reality television. Where else can a person experience the stress of managing a failing company, chasing a fleeing felon, and being stranded on a deserted island — on the same night!
This infatuation with faux risks is also on display in the rapidly expanding world of escape rooms. (For the uninitiated, this is where you pay $30
to get locked in a windowless room from which you then attempt to escape by solving various puzzles.)
There were only 22 escape rooms in the U.S. in 2014. Today, there are well over 2,000.
So while many of us are willing, even
, to engage difficult questions or scenarios, this process is enjoyable only when we are shielded from any true risk or responsibility. This explains why conversations about what is happening in the world (or what
happen) are little more than passionate carousels of the hypothetical. We’re not here to actually change anything. We just want to make noise from a safe place.
And what is true of Americans in general is true of Christians in particular. Although we like to claim the Bible gives us a solid basis for moral stances and understanding the future, our daily practice is at least as likely to be influenced by shifting societal norms.
This is certainly the message of recent national surveys that show Evangelical youth growing increasingly sympathetic toward gay marriage. So, too, is their trendy migration to yoga retreats and studios (along with caravans of thirty- and forty-something mothers) with no apparent concern about the discipline’s Hindu roots and design.
“The times,” as folk icon Bob Dylan once sang, “are a-changin’.” Whether we like it or not, whether we recognize it or not, whether we talk about it or not, serious cracks are appearing in the foundation of Western Christendom. Serious enough that, if nothing is done to reverse this trend, the church as we have known it risks collapsing into irrelevance.
If you think this sounds like hyperbole or sensationalism, I invite you to take a few minutes to review the evidence with me. It won’t take long to realize the “what if” questions we asked just a few years ago have become today’s “what is.”
The Erosion of American Christendom
In April 2015, CNN drew attention to a study conducted by the respected Pew Research Center that projected 106 million people will leave Christianity in the coming decades worldwide. This decline will be offset slightly by conversions, but the net loss — coming mostly at the expense of churches in Europe and the U.S. — is forecast to be significant.
Pew also projects that Islam, the world's fastest-growing faith, will add 1.15 billion adherents by 2050. At that time, according to the Pew study, Muslims will make up nearly one-third of the world's total projected population. Already the most bullish religion in Europe (by far), Islam is also gaining in the U.S. and is set to surpass Judaism as the country’s largest non-Christian religion within two decades.
Another landmark Pew study involving
35,000 American adults
shows the Christian percentage of the population is dropping precipitously. Almost every major branch of Christianity in the United States has lost ground — mainly because Millennials and Gen Z are leaving the fold. (Born between 1995-2015, the latter number roughly 75 million.)
Greg Smith, the lead researcher on the new study, has watched the religiously unaffiliated segment of American society grow for decades. Still, he admits, “the pace at which they've continued to grow is really astounding.”
A 2016 Gallop National Poll found nearly three quarters of Americans (72%) now believe religion is losing its influence on American life. And, sadly, this intuition is born out by the numbers. In their 2009 report,
Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults
Christian Smith and Patricia Snell conclude no more than 15% of the total emerging adult population embrace a strong religious faith.
The California-based Barna Group, after
conducting tens of thousands of interviews with unchurched people, reported in 2014 that the number of churchless Americans has jumped by nearly one-third in just 20 years. Put in perspective, if unchurched Americans were their own nation, they would be the eighth largest on Earth!
One particular concern is the proportion of young adults identifying with Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, and other mainline churches is about half the size it was a generation ago.
This has led certain Evangelicals to decry liberalism as the root of the problem.
If only it were this simple.
As a freshly-minted report from the
Religion News Service points out, several prominent conservative
denominations are themselves charting losses. Notable among these are the Southern Baptists who, according to their latest Annual Church Profile, have seen
membership fall for the 11th consecutive year. During this period, SBC congregations have lost about 1.3 million members and have seen baptisms decline by 26.5%.
In the words of
LifeWay Research president Ed Stetzer (the guy responsible for publishing the denomination’s Annual Profile), “Southern Baptists are shrinking faster than United Methodists.”
Who Is Detaching… and Why
Social researchers use two words to describe people who do not wish to associate with any religion: “unaffiliated” and “nones.” Whichever term is employed, this group has consistently ranked as the most dynamic preference category in religious tracking surveys over the past couple decades. Or, as one writer put it, “The fastest growing ‘religion’ in America is…
no religion at all!”
Unfortunately for Christian church growth planners, the “nones” are not a promising evangelistic target. Although 78% have roots in a religious tradition (Catholic, Jewish, Mainline Protestant, Evangelical), very few are looking to return. And this remains true as they exit young adulthood and have children of their own.
When asked to explain why they have shed their faith so emphatically, the newly detached cite reasons ranging from a general distaste for the
hierarchical nature of religious groups to clergy sexual abuse scandals. Others said they were simply too busy for religion, or preferred to believe in God in their own way.
The biggest concern of the “nones,” however, was a perception
religion is run too much like a business.
Fully 90% said religious organizations are too concerned with money and power… and too involved in politics.
While these charges have been raised before, it is sobering to hear them delivered in aggregate by people who are walking out the door. Leaving is the ultimate vote of no confidence — and it is not only what we believe that is being rejected, it is
who we are
. It is the way we live our lives.
If we are as honest and caring as we think we are, our own observations should bear witness to the truth behind many of these allegations. To dig in defensively, to refuse to look in the mirror society is holding before us, is to insure we will lose the hearts and minds of an entire generation. Even those who claim to be “
too busy for religion”
accuse us of the great sin of boring them… of having such a meager, unimpressive product they can’t be bothered. This weight of this should cause us to weep.
It should not surprise us to learn 72% of our disaffected countrymen have all but given up on attending religious services. Eighty percent have set aside the scriptures, and almost nine out of ten turn up their noses at the idea of prayer meetings, Bible studies, and religious education.
Only 7% of the “nones” believe religion offers a reliable source of moral guidance, leading a whopping 92% to find their answers in the arms of philosophy, “common sense,” and science. Almost 80% now believe ethics are situational.
In 2016, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a comprehensive look at “America’s Changing Religious Identity.” The landmark report was the single largest survey of American religious and denominational identity ever conducted.
Among other things, the study found in nearly half of American states (23), the religiously unaffiliated are now more numerous than Protestants, Catholics, or any other faith group. In Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Colorado, Alaska, Maine, and New Hampshire, one in every three residents identify as “nones.” In Vermont, the number tops 40%.
The study also highlighted just how integrated the religiously unaffiliated are in the various corners and strata of society. In addition to being represented in every racial and political community, their growing ranks include men and women, poor and well-heeled, uneducated and college grads.
But it is teens and young adults who are really putting gas in the unaffiliated movement. Although the sheer speed of their migration to religious non-involvement has put pressure on researchers to keep pace, several trend lines have started to come out. And they are sobering enough to keep church leaders up at night.
According to PRRI, Pew, and Barna survey data, religious disconnection jumps from 12% among older Baby Boomers to more than 42% among those under thirty. And this latter rate is essentially
four times what it was among this same age group in the 1980s.
This is a staggering exodus!
Barna and David Kinnaman put it back in 2014, “The younger you are, the more likely you are to never have been to church.”
Add to this the fact most
U.S. Evangelical and Catholic groups are aging
(with the exception of Hispanics) and you have the prescription for rapid transition to a secularized society.
©2018 George Otis, Jr. / The Sentinel Group
Part II of this three-part report will focus on the emergence of Generation Z — the first truly post-Christian generation in American history — and the reasons they and younger Millennials are leaving the faith.