I am a data guy. While I smile knowingly at the words of Mark Twain who supposedly said that “statistics may not lie but liars always use statistics,” I have to admit that in this world of disagreement and confusion statistics get my attention. That’s part of why I’ve been paying attention to Dr. Ryan Burge lately, the frenetic, energizer bunny of American religious and political data.
A few weeks ago, I was privileged to spend the day with Dr. Burge who was working with a set of congregational leaders doing a deep dive examination into demographic trends of American religion. Dr. Burge shared the results of his research that went into his latest book The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going. There are a number of notable trends in his book but the one that jumped off the page at all of us was the rapid growth of what now composes the largest single religious group in the United States, those who identify as being of “no religion.” Here’s the data:
Growing from just 5% of the population in 1970 up to 24% of the population in 2018, those who claim “no religion” now outnumber Catholics, Evangelicals, Mainliners, Black Protestants, and Jews, as well as all the remaining religious traditions in American put together.
This trend has been part of the American religious landscape long enough for us not to be surprised at the data, and also long enough for us to learn that there is some important differentiation among those who identify themselves as having no religion.
The “None’s” basically fall into three groups. The first two groups are atheists (which number about 7% of the population), and agnostics (which number about 6% of the population). While the two groups obviously have differences philosophically and theologically, they actually have quite a lot in common in terms of their demographics. Atheists and agnostics are both more educated than the average American, wealthier than the average American, more liberal than the average American, and more politically aware/engaged than the average American.
The third group, however, those who identify as “nothing in particular,” are quite different. As a group, they are less educated, make less money, and are far less politically aware/engaged than the average American. As a group, they are very close to the median point on political attitudes and party affiliation.
There is, however, one very important similarity between all three of the sub-groups of the “None’s.” The younger you are the more likely you are to be a None.
Basically, this data indicates that if a person is below the age of forty, there is an almost fifty/fifty chance that they have no religious beliefs or affiliations.
The implications of this trend in American religious life are so significant that they deserve another book in addition to the excellent one written by Dr. Burge. For the sake of brevity, however, I’ll focus very narrowly on one.
The numerical decline of American congregations can basically be linked to the fact that the youngest half of the country either no longer believes in God, is undecided and unconcerned about a belief in God, or simply find too little value in religious beliefs and practices to consider be affiliated with any religion. If you add in the roughly eight percent of Americans who are below the age of forty and adherents of other religions, then the conclusions are inescapable. Congregations in numerical decline whose hopes and dreams for the future are based upon attracting an as-yet-to-be-discovered population of young Christian families who are just sitting around waiting to be asked to join a church so that they can invite their friends and contribute to your budget simply have the wrong dreams.
As we enter this season of waiting called Advent, I am struck by the obvious parallels between 1st Century Judaism and 21st Century American Christianity. 1st Century Judaism was not monolithic. There was complexity and disagreement about how to interpret faithfulness to God in light of what was taking place in the world around them. It is fair to say, however, that there was an abiding hope that a Messiah was coming that would set the world aright. And yet, according to John, “he was in the world…but the world did not recognize him.” The people of God in that day and that time thought they knew what they were looking for, but they were waiting for an institutional Messiah to come and revitalize their existing patterns and structures.
When hope arrived, however, it arrived in a surprising way, in a form that required humility and holy imagination to be visible. Even Mary, when told about the surprising way that God was going to redeem the world, responds first by saying “how can this be?” Thankfully, however, she doesn’t stop there. When the angel finishes telling her what is about to happen, she responds with one of the two most important statements of relinquishment in the New Testament, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” Hope and humility were deeply intertwined.
That’s a clue, I think, for those of us who find ourselves in much the same posture as the people of God in the 1st Century. Where God is involved, our greatest hopes and our deepest humility are intertwined. “How can this be,” is a fairly common question at this moment in time and there is nothing wrong with asking it. The young, non-believing world has a mirror to hold up to us if we’re willing to look in it. We need to know why so many of them are skeptical or disinterested.
The place to start is almost certainly where our congregational identities most clearly overlap with our non-believing neighbors. Your congregation may be highly educated or not, politically engaged or not, but the None’s are such a large percentage of the population now that there is almost certainly a place where commonality exists between you and those people in your community.
Even more important though, than the “how can this be questioned” is our mindset of relinquishment. I’m not suggesting that you relinquish your convictions about God, but I’m most certainly suggesting that you relinquish your notions of the ways you think renewal is going to happen. I’d tell you what I think that’s going to look like, but I’ll probably be as surprised as you. The consistent pattern of scripture is that God almost always does the most extraordinary things at the margins among those most humble and open to the new thing that God is doing. So, let’s start engaging those who don’t share our faith, not by telling them what to do, but by listening to what they have to say.