April 27, 2009
John Ortberg: Snapshots of Religious Life
What do the recent surveys tell us about the future of faith?
by John Ortberg
Snapshot: The recently released American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) indicates that faith is going down across the board. The number of people who identify themselves as Christian has decreased by 11 percent in a generation. The single fastest-growing category when it comes to religious affiliation is "None," which grew from 8 percent to 15 percent since 1990.
The "Nones" are the single biggest group in the state of Vermont, at 34 percent of the state's population. And "None" was the only religious category to grow in all 50 states.
One of the other fastest growing categories is "Don't Know/confused." (You can supply your own mainline humor here. In fact, the "two-party system" of evangelical versus mainline Christianity that I grew up with is collapsing. In an ironic return to Reformation language, in the United States "evangelical" will soon be synonymous with "Protestant.")
Barry Kosmin, who co-authored the survey, commented that more than ever before "people are just making up their own stories of who they are. They say, ?I'm everything. I'm nothing. I believe in myself.'" He said that faith is increasingly treated as a fashion statement that serves as a vehicle for self-expression rather than a transcendent commitment which demands costly devotion.
One respondent to a version of the story in USA Today said: "None of my friends believe in God. When the subject of religion comes up around the table, we all just mock it. It's a source of ridicule." 27 percent of Americans do not even expect a religious funeral at their death. The survey doesn't indicate how many are hoping to skip death altogether.
Snapshot: In the entertainment section of The San Francisco Chronicle recently, someone asked Mick LaSalle, the movie critic, what kind of movie will never be re-made. He answered by pointing to films like Going My Way, and forties films that starred Bing Crosby as a young parish priest. Religion is simply no longer accepted as part of the national fabric, he said. The one kind of movie that is most unlikely to be re-made today is one that assumes faith as a kind of national backdrop.
Snapshot: I was talking to some young church leaders recently about how, twenty years ago, if someone wanted to look for a model of what an effective church might look like in the future, they would generally go to a place like Willow Creek or Saddleback. But these younger leaders said it was no longer apparent where they should go to see what church might look like in another twenty years.
Snapshot: Tom Klegg and Warren Bird noted that if the unchurched population in the US were its own nation, it would be the fifth most populated nation on the planet, after China, the former Soviet Union, India, and Brazil.
Snapshot: A religion reporter for the LA Times wrote an article, and later a book, describing how he lost his faith in the process of covering his beat. He said that article brought in exponentially more positive emails than anything else he'd ever written.
All of which leads me to ask: Are we witnessing the process of secularization here in America similar to what Europe experienced in the middle of the twentieth century?
It's not a matter of new evidence being introduced that makes the message of Jesus less likely to be true. What makes a living faith cease to be a live option is much more subtle and complex. It often has more to do with cultural shifts and attitudes that move gradually over time until a tipping point suddenly reveals them.
The question is not one of Kingdom Anxiety. The Kingdom of God has been doing very well, and will continue to flourish no matter the ebbs of flows from one century and continent to another. Phillip Jenkins has aptly chronicled how the explosion of the church in our day has shifted East and South.
He has also, in his most recent fascinating book, chronicled how Christianity was deeply rooted in much of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa for over 800 years, only to die out over centuries.
I hope what we are witnessing in the United States is not such a trend. I don't have any magic answers if it is. But it's a good thing to lift our heads up out of our own churches and projects, and look around the neighborhood.
By the way, if you're involved in helping to lead a church, and you wonder whether giving it the best you have to offer matters - it does.