According to the Pew Research Center, the Christian share of the US population is still declining, while the number of US adults, who do not identify with any organized religion, is growing. These changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups.
The drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, but it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks, and Latinos. Among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education. Among women as well as men.
The falloff in traditional religious beliefs and practices coincides with changes in the religious composition of the US public. A growing share of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, including some who self-identify as atheists or agnostics as well as many who describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” Altogether, the religiously unaffiliated (also called the “nones”) now make up 23% of the adult population.
The drop in the Christian share of the population has been driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Each of these large religious traditions has shrunk by approximately three percentage points since 2007. The evangelical Protestant share of the US population also has dipped; but at a slower rate, falling by about one percentage point since 2007.
Even as their numbers decline, American Christians – like the U.S. population as a whole – are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Non-Latino whites now account for smaller shares of evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics than they did seven years earlier, while Latinos have grown as a share of all three religious groups. Racial and ethnic minorities now make up 41% of Catholics, 24% of evangelical Protestants, and 14% of mainline Protestants.
While many US religious groups are aging, the unaffiliated are comparatively young – and getting younger, on average, over time. There is a rising cohort of highly unaffiliated Millennials reaching adulthood. They will have a major impact on religion in America over the next twenty years.
In 2007, there were an estimated 41 million mainline Protestant adults in the United States. Today the number of mainline Protestants has fallen by well over 7 million. Like mainline Protestants, Catholics appear to be declining both as a percentage of the population and in absolute numbers, with a decline of well over 3 million since 2007. For every one Catholic convert, more than six Catholics leave the church. Taken a step further, Catholicism loses more members than it gains at a higher rate than any other denomination, with nearly 13 percent of all Americans describing themselves as “former Catholics.” So far Pope Francis does not appear to have an impact on slowing-down the Catholic exodus. Perhaps the US Catholic bishops still have more impact than Francis? Perhaps the “Francs effect” is not what some observes so optimistically anticipated? Something for future historians to ponder and examine…….
The number of religiously unaffiliated adults in the United States has increased by roughly 19 million since 2007. There are now approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the States and this group – sometimes called the religious “nones” – is more numerous than either Catholics or mainline Protestants, according to recent surveys.
One of the most important factors in the growth of the “nones” is the Millennial generational change. As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much less connection with Christian churches, than the older generations. And the Millennial generation is big. It’s bigger than the Baby Boomers: there are nearly 78 million Millennials, as opposed to just 76 million Boomers. By 2020, the Millennials will represent almost 40% of all American voters.
So what are the Millennial values?
Spirituality is a key value for Millennials but not the institutional church. Certainly the Millennials hold less traditional or orthodox religious beliefs. Perhaps they are intent on redefining what religion means for themselves, just like everything else in life. A great many Millennials see the Bible not as the Word of God but as a record of peoples’ religious beliefs over the centuries, and more about creative theological imagery than strict historic fact. Millennials strongly support issues such as marriage equality, climate change, and reproductive rights, while many traditional religious institutions still reject these ideas. Millennials are strongly supportive of Christian values but find the churches too judgmental, too linked with conservative politics, and more concerned about protecting and promoting the institutional church — often with little humility and little transparency — than witnessing to authentic Christian values. They see Christian leaders often creating more polarization than promoting dialogue, collaboration, and mutual respect.
Changing the conversation?
As Christians, and Christian leaders, we need to shift our focus from speaking about the operational administration of the church, fidelity to institutional doctrine, and a morality overly-focused on pelvic concerns to speaking about and listening to the life concerns of contemporary people, and therefore more truly representing Christ. Rather than judging people and disciplining them, Christians and Christian leaders should be ministering, mentoring, and spirituality guiding.
Yes we live in a time of great change. Rather than denying, bemoaning, or condemning the religious shifts and changes, perhaps we should refocus and become more observant about God’s Spirit still at work in the people and events around us. We need more productive conversations that engage people, stimulate their minds, and touch their hearts. More constructive conversations about real and contemporary human issues.
The renewal of hearts and minds. A ministry that reaches out to people rather than pushing them aside. This is what Christian life and ministry should be about.
Next week some further reflections about changing the conversation. Your own reflections are always warmly welcomed.