The Changing Religious Landscape of America

Ah, the life of the church. So many arguments, so little time.

The list of subjects about which the saints disagree is seemingly boundless, encompassing both the profound and the woefully mundane.

The ordination of women. The proper role of religion in politics. Climate change. Homosexuality and same-gender marriage. Gender pronouns for God. How best to aid the poorest of the poor. Which brand of fair-trade coffee to serve in the fellowship hall. Which hymnal to use and which hymns to sing. The use of “trespasses” or “debts/debtors” in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. What color to paint the narthex. Should the American flag be in the front of the church?

It should be no surprise that most outsiders looking in are asking, “Why would I want to sign up for something like that?

Recently, the Pew Center for Religion and Public Life unveiled a massive study which included 35,000 adults, called the Religious Landscape Study. I imagine to the glee of skeptics, atheists and agnostics the survey reported that the percentage of the population identifying themselves as Christians is dropping precipitously from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% today.

But as Emma Green reported in the Atlantic, religion in American is not dying, it’s just very complicated.  The results, she says, are a little more nuanced than simply being unaffiliated. “How important is religion in your life?” was asked as a follow up question to “which religious group do you belong?” The results show that while this group might be churchless, they are not necessarily without faith: 44 percent said religion is “very” or “somewhat” important to them.

So, there’s a pretty significant group of Americans who don’t identify with a particular denomination or congregation, but who still care about religion or spirituality to some degree. This is not the pattern of a nation headed down the slippery slope of secularism, but of the many different ways people experience God.

Other commentators are saying, “Not so fast.” Wes Granberg-Michaelson, former President of the Reformed Church of America, observes that while Christianity may be on the decline in the United States, the world is becoming more religious, not less. Religious convictions are growing and shifting geographically in dramatic ways around the world. The center of Christianity has shifted from Europe to the global South. In 1980, more Christians were found in the global South than the North for the first time in 1,000 years. Today, the Christian community in Latin America and Africa, alone, account for 1 billion people.

Ed Stetzer, a missiologist, pastor, and President of Lifeway Research, argues that what the survey shows is that nominal Christians have now become “Nones,” and what he calls convictional Christians, have remained just as committed to the faith. This marks yet another shift in Christianity where Christians are increasingly on the margins, not in the middle of American culture as in the post-War years.

Nevertheless, the survey shows that every major branch of Christianity in the United States has lost a significant number of members mainly because millennials are leaving in droves. More than one-third of millennials now say they are unaffiliated with any faith, up 10 percentage points since 2007.

Many Millennials, who sociologists call “Nones” (because they are not affiliated with any religious tradition) are repelled by popular depictions of the Christian faith as politically right-wing, anti-science, homophobic, judgmental, insensitive, exclusive, and dull. Young adults appear to want a spirituality that grounds them and connects them to the transcendent but find traditional or organized religion unable or unwilling to meet that need.

The reality is that worship in most our mainline churches as it currently occurs appeals to only 10 to 20% of the population. I have a clergy friend who turned a dying church around who says, “Business as usual, even if done well, is not going to work.”

So what are Millennials looking for in worship and in the spiritual life? The late Robert Webber, Professor of Religion at Northern Baptist Seminary wrote:

  • The primary issue of the future is not the style of worship so much as its authentic character. It must be real, genuine, and sincere. Millennials can smell “phony” a mile away. Therefore traditionalists must avoid “dead ritualism,” and proponents of contemporary must avoid “entertainment” and “manipulation” worship.
  • The future style of worship will draw from the catholic (early church), Reformation, evangelical, and contemporary traditions. Local churches must be eclectic.
  • Future worship will move toward these style characteristics:
    • More use of ritual and symbo
    • lMore spaces for quiet and contemplation
    • More frequent celebration of communion
    • High participation
    • Convergence of musical styles
    • More use of string and wind instruments
    • Recovery of the Christian year as a spiritual discipline

Historian Diana Butler Bass calls this “re-traditioning.” Millennials and seekers are not looking for “cool” churches, with charismatic preachers and a smokin’ rock band, nor are they looking for a return to “traditionalism.” They want to recover the classic spiritual disciplines of the church, but in ways that are appropriate to the 21st century; things such as meditation, prayer, scripture study, service, discernment, fasting, spiritual direction, and Sabbath, to name a few.

The question is how will our mainline churches adapt to these new realities? What new forms of Christianity will emerge in the next decades? What is really at stake here? What would we be willing to sacrifice so that our children and grandchildren will still be followers of Jesus?

About Norman Bendroth

Norman Bendroth is a Professional Transition Specialist certified by the Interim Ministry Network. He has served as a settled pastor in two United Church of Christ congregations and as a Sr. Interim pastor in seven other UCC congregations. He was also an executive for three different non-profit agencies. He has had additional training in Mediation Skills for Church Leaders from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and training in Appreciative Inquiry from the Clergy Leadership Institute. Rev. Bendroth has the M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and his D. Min. from Andover Newton Theological school where he concentrated on theology and systems theory. He is married to Peggy Bendroth and has two adopted Amerasian children.
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