October 18, 2019

According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, the religious landscape of the United States continues to change ever more rapidly. Based on surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults now describe themselves as Christians. This is down 12 percentage points over the past decade. The religiously unaffiliated share of the population, people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%. This us up from 17% in 2009.

One of my friends suggested that this was primarily a Catholic problem due to sexual abuse by clergy. Well, not exactly. Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) now identify as Catholic, down from 23% in 2009.

Meanwhile….. in the religiously unaffiliated population – the religious “nones” – we see the numbers swelling. Self-described atheists account for 4% of U.S. adults. This is up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009. Agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009.

Religious “nones” are growing faster among Democrats than Republicans, although their ranks are swelling in both parties. And although the religiously unaffiliated are on the rise among younger people and most groups of older adults, their growth is most pronounced among young adults. Christianity is losing contact with young people.

So how does one interpret this? The simple answer is to say that people are simply becoming more sinful and secular. Period. Frankly I find that too simple and an unfair response.

We need a new Christian Reformation. I fear too many church leaders want to preserve churchianity not Christianity…… We need to seriously reflect about what it means to be a believer today. We need to examine our own “Christian” behavior. We need to better communicate what we are all about as contemporary believers.

And yes…..I would like to see our Christian communities MORE actively listening to young people and truly involving them in life and ministry in our communities. And in our communities of faith, we must absolutely affirm and support our gay, lesbian, and transgender people. People should not be fired or expelled from our institutions because of their sexual orientation.

Quick but serious thoughts. I am in the air this week end. Going to Chicago!


7 thoughts on “Changing Religious Landscape: Decline of Christianity in USA Continues at Rapid Pace

  1. You nailed it, Jack! “We need a new Christian Reformation. I fear too many church leaders want to preserve churchianity not Christianity” and “We need to better communicate what we are all about as contemporary believers.” I find it encouraging that only 4% state they are atheists. That means there’s fertile ground for better “communicating” the Christian teachings, among other things, of freedom from fear and hope in the future.

  2. Jack, I think part of the problem (cf Joe Martos) is that we are experiencing a significant change in the language we use to talk about our faith. We are spending all our time trying to get people to understand language that was, as we are not yet able to speak with the language of today.
    I ran into this in Belgium. After a day or two with relatives, I found I was speaking Flemish (of the area of my grandparents) with little difficulty. Every now and then, though, my relatives would get this bemused look on their faces. They knew the words I was using, but hadn’t heard them in 50 years. I was speaking the language of 1910, when my dad and grandparents came to Canada.
    I was then faced with a choice: do I try to convince them that my words were the right ones to use? Or do I learn their words for the same reality, and switch to that? The former was an interesting academica exercise, the latter was the way to a real conversation.
    I think the Church is in a situation like that at the moment. We are still trying to convince people that the language of yesterday is the right language to use today. It was good language yesterday. But it doesn’t suffice now. We need to learn the new language that is developing. (I don’t think it’s as yet fully developed.)
    Of course, there’s likely a fear that, as we use new language and new understandings, we also experience reality differently. And that, for the Church, is likely terrifying. Perhaps we need a ressourcement, a revitalizing of what was. So, for example (and again as per Martos), a move to eucharist as the New Testament verb/act of thanksgiving, rather than a later (in translation to Latin) noun to be received.
    We live in interesting times.

  3. Dear Jack,
    It is truly refreshing to read these words and to not fear the repercussions of expressing doubts that what we are now doing is, perhaps, not getting us closer to the Divine. It gives me hope, actually, that the Spirit is stirring us to make a real decision about what we believe and how we live. When “church” doesn’t meet our spiritual/psychological needs, something needs to change. I vividly remember my THIRD GRADE confirmation ceremony and not understanding what we were doing. I couldn’t make a mature acceptance of my beliefs despite the ceremony that declared I was now “committed.”

    These times of disruption have seriously caused me to sort out what makes sense in the dogmas/edict from above. It is scary to actually make personal evaluations of what was once unquestionable but it feels more authentic to know that I believe because it makes sense and not because I am too afraid to question. Yes, it is disruptive but these times seem to be forcing us to be true to our values. Unless one doesn’t care, there is no more simply following the rules without actually thinking about what you are doing. Hopefully, the old days of “Pray, pay, and obey” are fading.

    Have a great time in the Windy City.


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