America’s Changing Religious Landscape? An Honest Appraisal

Spectrum_Wave_by_monkeymagico.pngSo, I don’t normally do this, but I feel like this kind of thing keeps happening, so I’m going to put my thoughts down here and let them marinate like a big, juicy, nerdy glaze amidst the ever bubbling broth of the Internet Blogosphere.

Today, the Pew Center dropped this little gem, a culmination of their latest research called “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” Give it a looksie:

http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

For those too lazy to look, here’s the high points:

In 2007, Christians took up 78.4% of the religious population. In 2014, Christians saw a decrease to 70.6%, a difference of 7.8%. Non Christian faiths (Jewish, Hindu, Islam, Buddhism, etc) saw an increased by 1.2%, from 4.7 %to 5.9%. Non-religious, or Unaffiliated, increased from 16.1% to 22.8%, an increase of 6.7%.

One can look at these numbers in different ways.

Chicken-Little-on-CNNApproach the First: Chicken Little

We in the Christian community love our apocalypses. Nary a year goes by that someone goes on national TV claiming that the end is nigh, and burnination will cover the land. This kind of approach often overwhelms reports like this. We see a 7.8% loss in Christians and we lose our flingin-flangin minds. “THIS COUNTRY HAS ABANDONED GOD! TRULY THE END IS UPON US! IF ONLY THE CHILDREN WENT TO BIBLE SCHOOL, THEN NONE OF THIS WOULD HAVE HAPPENED!”

Of course, I’m exaggerating, but in some ways this has become the default approach to these kinds of reports, and understandably so. We are a people that, over the last century, have seen unprecedented amounts of public prestige and power in the media and in our governance. With these kinds of numbers, a creeping fear at the back of our minds is made manifest: perhaps we are losing our power in the world?

I’m not saying that this is a horrible, terrible perspective. I’m saying this is a common perspective, and reasonable in many ways. When one is used to being prestigious, we enter into what is known as the “bulwark mentality,” shoring up defenses, doubling down on what we have left as opposed to dealing with the shifting foundations upon which we build our castles. Though it’s natural and understandable, it doesn’t deal with the fact that it won’t last in the same way forever. We’re going to need some renovation.

WhosWhoMagicMirror1Approach the Second: A Long Hard Look in the Mirror

Also known as “How I Look at Things.” Unlike many Christian bloggers, I’m not going to couch my categories in pretension. Of course I will admit that the way I think is the best way to think. I’m biased, like everyone else. I’m also going to admit that I may be wrong, too. There are going to be things that I overlook, because I’m human and just as lazy and average as everyone else. This is simply how I look at these numbers.

When I read the Pew report, I see a great many things that confirm what numerous other reports have said: America is changing, as it has always changed. The old get older, and the young think differently. We welcome new people to our shores, with different faiths and traditions. None of this is new. When the country was young, we were terrified at all the Catholic people from Ireland and Germany and Italy coming to our shores, threatening our White European Protestant way of life. Did the country die? Did the church die? No. No to both. Nor will it.

What will happen? It’s going to change.

Unlike many people, I see the unaffiliated not as “THE RISE OF SECULARISM” but more like “THE RISE OF PEOPLE BEING HONEST WITH THEMSELVES AND NO LONGER BEING HELD UP TO THE PRETENSE OF HAVING TO BELONG TO SOMETHING THEY DON’T BELIEVE IN.”

Because it was a social convention, belonging to a religion was the default for so many people that probably didn’t really believe in that religion in the first place. It’s just what Good People Do. Now, as has been the trend since before I was born, people are simply being honest with themselves, and giving up the pretense of needing to be in church.

Perhaps, despite the numbers, despite the furor and fear, this may actually be a good thing for the church in the long run? Perhaps people being honest with themselves is a step in the right direction? Because why would the church, a gathering of people with a common love for God and the redemption it can offer, want to simply stuff its pews with people who really aren’t invested in the kind of beliefs we hold? If people honestly don’t believe in Christ, why pat ourselves on the back for inflated numbers like we have been for the past century?

If you think Christianity is dead just because it’s seeing declining numbers in the US, think again. Christianity is booming– just not here. What we’re seeing is a cultural shift, where Christianity may be losing numbers at home, it’s growing phenomenally in other places. More than that, it’s booming in places where it’s not socially acceptable or even legal to be Christian.

That’s something we often forget. Christianity does best when it’s not in a position of power. Growth and discipleship for Jesus Christ does best when it is in a minority position. What we’re seeing is a revival of honesty.

On another front, one of the things you perhaps didn’t notice was what kind of Christianity is gaining. Among white middle-to-upper class folk, it’s declining, but among Latinos? African Americans? Growing. We’re seeing a vast increase in diversity among Christians. It just doesn’t look like it used to. Christianity is changing to reflect the default image in America, and the default image of America is changing.

We can no longer continue to expect Christianity to look the same, because the average Christian does not look like they used to, nor do they think like they used to. And we need to stop thinking this is a bad thing. It can be an amazing thing, if we’re willing to let it be, and let God do whatever God is doing.

So dump the paranoia. Chicken Little will not save the church–and for that matter, the church doesn’t need saving. We already have Jesus for that.

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About grantimusmax

Grant Barnes, aka Grantimus Maximus, aka The Nerdcore Theologian. He is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology with a Masters Degree in Divinity. He is also a commissioned elder in the United Methodist Church, and Senior Pastor at Hemphill First United Methodist Church and Pineland United Methodist Church. He graduated from Texas State University Cum Laude with a Bachelor's degree in English, minor in History. He watches way too many movies, reads too many books, listens to too much music, and plays too many video games to ever join the mundane reality people claim is the "Real World." He rejects your reality, and replaces it with a vision of what could be, a better one, shaped by his love for God.
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