The American Religious Landscape: How Moyo Fits In
If you are a part of a religious community or even if you're not, you've probably heard a lot of people worry about the state of Christianity in the U.S. Young people aren't going to church! The church is dying! The pews are empty! Whether these things are true or not, one thing is for sure: the way Christianity looks in America is changing.
This survey has added fuel to this worry-fire, and almost every major publication, like the New York Times and NPR, has offered article after article about what these findings mean for religion in America. For those of you who haven’t heard about the survey, the Pew Research Center completed a comprehensive and massive study in 2014 about people’s religious beliefs in the U.S. This was a follow-up to a similarly massive and thorough study from 2007.
The Major Takeaway
In short, significantly less American people say they are affiliated with organized religion while a larger percentage of the population claim no religious affiliation. This probably isn't news to most of you.
For those of us coming from a Christian or any religious perspective, these findings confirmed what many people have seen occur over several years. The results also have many religious leaders in the U.S. shaking in their boots. But a lot of people see this moment in religious history of the U.S. as an opportunity.
Some Nitty-Gritty Numbers
In 2007, 78.4% of the American population claimed affiliation to some kind of Christian tradition compared to 70.6% in 2014. Beyond the decline of religious affiliation, 22.7% of adults in the U.S. say they have no affiliation to any religious tradition, a 6.7% increase from 2007. These religious “nones” now make up a larger percentage of the American population than those a part of mainline Protestant traditions or the Catholic church. For Millennials (ages 18-33), fewer than 6/10 people identify with any branch of Christianity. These statistics are striking, as the shifts have occurred quickly and across all demographics – age, race, and region. (Check out Pew Research Center’s interactive database tool to explore more of the findings in visual format.)
What does this mean for American Christianity?
You don’t have to be a researcher or theologian to see that the way American Christians understand religious devotion and action is changing. The numbers make that obvious. The fact is, traditional ways of religious expression are drawing a smaller group of people into church – for every person who has joined a religion after being raised unaffiliated, more than four people become religious “nones” after growing up in some religion.
If connecting people through religious devotion is important (and most people of faith think it is), then churches and religious leaders must begin asking different questions about how to reach the U.S. populations, especially as Millennials are becoming the majority of the adult population.
It’s not all bad!
While an 8 percent drop in Christian affiliation seems striking, over 70% of U.S. adults still claim Christianity. So, there's still a lot of Christians walking around - about 172.8 million people, in fact. The designation of “nones” might also be a little deceiving. While this group includes atheists (3.1% of U.S. population) and agnostics (4%), the majority of the “nones” are people who claim “nothing in particular.” In other words, 15.8% of the 22.7% of “nones” could be interested in religious expression, just not concerned with being a part of organized religion. Actually, 30% of the “nones” say religion is either “very important” or “somewhat important” to them. Just because someone is a "none" doesn't mean they don't want anything to do with religion, it's just they don't have anything to do with organized religion.
New Ways of Understanding Religious Expression
As the Very Reverend Gary Hall of the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. notes in an NPR interview, “One of the things that the survey says pretty strongly is that the people who are religious continue to have very strong desires to pray, to do important social justice work and community work with people, but they don’t see the church as the place to do that.” Hall’s statement is by no means revolutionary, but it taps into a need that this survey suggests. Christians still want to live spiritually and act in solidarity with others on behalf of their faith. But a lot of those who have faith don’t see intentional ways to marry these two needs in the traditional church. Perhaps one way American Christian leaders can address this survey and the desires of people of faith in the U.S. is to create spaces and opportunities that address the desire to live spiritually and act for justice outside of traditional expressions of faith.
An important reason that The Upper Room created Moyo was to address the needs of a large percentage of American Christians to be spiritual and do social justice in new, untraditional, and intentional ways. On this interactive website, we hope visitors can focus on both being and doing, discovering ways to grow spiritually through reflection while also learning about how to get involved in important social justice issues. Furthermore, it is through the issues like human dignity and justice that Christians can find connection with other groups in the U.S. and around the world – unaffiliated people and people of differing faiths.
Without a doubt, the religious landscape in the U.S. is changing. We can either lament this fact, or we can do something about it. Let’s not be the people who just look around asking why pews aren’t filled and the young folks are skipping church. Let’s look for new ways of experiencing and understanding our Christian faith. Join us at Moyo in attempting to find intentional ways of being and doing, living and expressing our faith.