Is America going secular in a big way? What is the religious future of America? The band R.E.M. had a hit back in 1991 called, “Losing My Religion.” Is that song being fulfilled in today’s world? (By the way, ironically, the song has nothing to do with religion, but rather, according to one of the songwriters, it’s about “someone who pines for someone else. Its unrequited love…”
A couple weeks ago we looked at the religious trends on the global scene. There we saw that followers of Jesus are growing worldwide, and there was much about which to be encouraged. Now we turn our eyes toward home, and the picture is not nearly as pretty. Earlier this week, the Pew Research Center released their massive study of religion in America. It received wide coverage, trumpeting the decline and fall of Christianity in America. Is that really happening? Most of the headlines focused on the dark side of this study. Most popularly, major news outlets trumpeted the fact that the percentage of adult Christians in America has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014.
Certainly, that is not good news for those who love the Lord and want others to know the joy of our faith. America is also a mission field. Our work to make the good news about Jesus known has never been more needed.
However, looking deeper into the results of this study yields some encouraging trends. These trends are analyzed and highlighted in Christianity Today, and I highly recommend you check out that article if you wish to pursue this study more deeply.
Here are just some highlights:
EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY HAS REMAINED STRONG
Those who identify as evangelical (or “born again”) Christians are still the nation’s largest religious group. In the past seven years, evangelicals have grown in number but the population of the US has grown slightly more. There are still about 1 in 4 American adults who identify as Evangelical Christians (25.4% in 2014, vs. 26.3% in 2007). The groups that have declined precipitously are Roman Catholics and Mainline Protestants.
CLOSE TO 40% OF AMERICANS ARE LIVING LIFE IN SOME FAITH COMMUNITY OTHER THAN THE ONE IN WHICH THEY WERE RAISED
This suggests a very dynamic spiritual landscape in America, which is good news for those Christians who highly value the pursuit of the truth. Those churches who are willing to deal with the hard questions of faith are going to do well in the religious marketplace.
According to the Pew report, over the past seven years, evangelicals lost almost 8.5 percent of adherents and gained almost 10 percent for a net gain of 1.5 percent since 2007.
By comparison, Catholics had a net loss of nearly 11 percent due to religious switching, and mainline denominations had a net loss of more than 4 percent.
Unfortunately, those who claim to be unaffiliated with any religion had a net gain of more than 13 percent. Overall, the study found that “there are more than four former Christians for every convert to Christianity.” Again, this is troubling news, but the stats are weighed heavily against Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants.
EVANGELICALS ARE GENERALLY GOOD AT RETAINING THEIR YOUTH IN THE FAITH
Evangelicals retain two-thirds of their children. This places them fifth among all religious groups and second among Christian groups. By comparison, Mainline Protestants at large retain less than half of their children.
What happens to the one-third that leave Evangelical churches? Unfortunately, most switch to no religion at all (15%), but many join a mainline Protestant church (12%) while only 2 percent become Catholics.
ATHEISM AND AGNOSTICISM ARE ON THE RISE, BUT…
While its truth that atheists and agnostics have nearly doubled their share of the religious marketplace over the past seven years, they are not retaining their numbers very well. The unaffiliated did gain 18 percent from religious switching. However, of the current people who self-identify as “no religion,” 28% were raised Catholics, 21% were raised in mainline denominations, and 16% were raised as evangelicals.
However, the unaffiliated have “one of the lower retention rates among religious traditions,” losing nearly half of their children to some kind of spiritual community. 9.2% of Americans were raised unaffiliated, while 4.3% of Americans left the group and affiliated with a religion by 2014. Where did they find a spiritual home? Most joined Jehovah’s Witnesses (12%), with the rest evenly spread among other religions: Buddhists (8%), Mormons (8%), evangelicals (7%), mainliners (6%), black Protestants (6%), Muslims (6%), Jews (6%), and Orthodox (5%). This means that many non-religious people are ready to explore spiritual communities, but they need to be sought after.
Well, the study is extensive and fascinating. The bottom line is that we live in an increasingly secular society, but also one that is open to explore new spiritual ideas. May God help us to prayerfully and with authentic love for others, share the good news that Jesus offers forgiveness of sins and a life of contentment and even joy for those who give themselves unreservedly to him.