It was jarring news for churches across America. Yet it probably shouldn’t have been, for it was a statistical reinforcement of what any of us who have been paying attention have noticed for years: Christianity in America is in steep decline. The most recent Pew Research Center numbers were stark: the last 7 years (2007 – 2014) alone have seen an almost 8 point (78.4 – 70.6 percent) decrease in those who identify as Christian, with an equal increase in those who describe their religious affiliation as “none.” Unsurprisingly, this quickening trend, decades in the making, is most prevalently affecting younger Americans, so much so that they now have a new moniker: the “nones,” as now 36 percent of Millennials self-identify as nothing when it comes to faith. They are not alone: the rise of the nones is occurring across all age categories, even if not at as quick a pace. There are more nones in America now than Roman Catholics or Mainline Protestants (Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and others combined).
The ranks of the unaffiliated are being filled by former Christians. Nearly a quarter of people who were raised as Christian no longer classify themselves as such. Ex-Christians now represent 19 percent of adults. Consider that statistic in a nation with a population of 319 million people.
Predictably, amongst American churches, various factions are blaming each other. It is the fault of “liberal” churches with nothing robust enough to offer our people that is undifferentiated from the changing winds of culture. It is “conservative” churches with their judgmental ways and rabid desire for political control and influence. For some, it is rap music or social media, the other political party or Kanye West. Some of these rationales are laughable. Others deserve much deep reflection. What I believe is that all Christians in America ought to be engaged in radical self-examination and soul searching, as many of our congregations have become incubators for unbelief and disassociation.
Here, I wish I could offer a ready antidote. Thankfully, my entire sixteen years of ordained ministry have been in church communities defying gravity and growing, so I have learned some good lessons along the way. Yet I have noticed, even over that brief time, that it is ever increasingly difficult to resist succumbing to this societal pull. Permanently securing people across generational lines – much less young people and their families – into the life of the Church is monumentally challenging if they did not grow up habitually participating in the Church. And even then, it is hit and miss.
While there are no easy remedies, I do know this: no church in America that intends to survive can be cavalier about its mission and purpose, nor how those are lived out in community. We must know why we exist, where we are going, and what our energy and resources are best used to accomplish, and then we must all pull, as much as possible, in that direction.
To my mind, these things are not up for grabs, even though they must be reclaimed again and again. We exist to be disciples (followers) of Jesus Christ. That is the reason there is a place called St. John’s: to be disciples who make disciples. Everything we do is in service to this. As Christians, we are discovering that we have been invited into the very life and story of God through Jesus. Thus, we know why we get up in the morning, we are seeing that we live for meaning, and thus our parish must be one where Jesus’ life is being lived through us, even as we invite others – as imperfect as us – into this great story that gives all other stories meaning.
In the months ahead, I am going to unpack how I believe this is to be lived out in our parish community and how it must particularly attend to those newest to us and youngest amongst us. Much of it will not be surprising. Some of it I have said already (and by the way, get ready, because I do not intend to stop). All of it is my attempt to guide us faithfully amidst what might, at first glance, be only seen as a historical moment of cataclysmic challenge, or even catastrophe. Yet I believe, for churches which are open, this is a new age of opportunity for the willing.
More to come.
The Reverend Eric Long, Rector