The news just never seems to get better for American churches.
A poll released this month confirms statistically what clergy and congregations are hearing anecdotally and through the media practically all the time: the percentage of U.S. adults who are religiously unaffiliated is increasing.
âThe share of Americans who do not identify with a religious group is surely growing,â the Pew Research Center said in a Sept. 14 report.
Some congregational coaches say the steady stream of information about the rise of the nones âÂ and church closures and other trends âÂ affects unhealthy churches differently than healthy ones.
The news hits some with anxiety and fear, said Mark Tidsworth, president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates.
âThey tend to circle their wagons and insulate as much as possible and become isolated subcultures in our society,â he said.
He described them as the minority.
On the other hand, healthier churches generally embrace new information about challenging religious trends because it helps them adjust programs and ministries, Tidsworth said.
âThe invigorated churches I know of are using this to help them clarify who they are and what they are about and providing new energy âŚ and spiritual vigor for them,â he said.
âLow levels of religiosityâ
In the report, Pew acknowledged the claim by some that there arenât necessarily more nones in the U.S.. Instead, those voices say, people today are more willing to acknowledge being non-religious than in the past.
Pew said the observation is âonly partlyâ accurate.
It is the case that religiously inactive Americans are more willing to acknowledge that fact today than in previous generations.
âBut that is not the whole story, because the share of Americans with low levels of religious commitment also has been growing,â Pew said.
The survey, titled âThe factors driving the growth of religious ânonesâ in the U.S.,â also noted that generational differences are impacting the numbers.
Rather than being only older Americans who are former Christians or Jews or other faiths, nones also are younger people who have never been affiliated with any faith.
Younger Americans are much more willing to identify as nones than are older Americans who hold similar levels of belief, Pew found.
âNearly eight-in-ten Millennials with low levels of religious commitment describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or ânothing in particular,ââ the study reported.
However, only 54 percent in the Silent and Greatest generations with low commitment levels will identify as unaffiliated.
âIn addition, the share of the population that exhibits low levels of religiosity is growing,â Pew found.
That category measures self-reported levels of worship attendance, daily prayer, certainty in the existence of God and importance of faith in a personâs life.
Fourteen percent of U.S. adults scored âlowâ in those measurements in 2007, Pew said, compared to 19 percent in 2014.
But the bottom line in the growth of the nones is the onset of the Millennial generation.
âWhether Millennials will become more religious as they age remains to be seen, but there is nothing in our data to suggest that Millennials or members of Generation X have become any more religious in recent years,â the Pew report said. âIf anything, they have so far become less religious as they have aged.â
âTalk to Millennialsâ
But the usefulness to churches of such data is limited for churches because surveys offer a limited number of questions to answer, said George Bullard, a church consultant and president of the Columbia Partnership.
What churches need is qualitative research that marketers do to gauge customer behaviors and attitudes toward a product or company. Bullard said Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope are doing that kind of work and presented in their book, Church Refugees.
âIt was qualitative research rather than quantitative research,â Bullard said. âThey did in-depth interviews with church dropouts âŚ and got to the âwhyâ behind any statistics.â
That approach humanizes the dones and others who have abandoned or ignored religion.
âIt personalized it. It suggests helpful strategies,â he said.
And itâs not something churches have to totally rely on researchers and books to do for them, Bullard added.
âAs one minister to Millennials in a church once said: âdo not read articles about Millennials. Talk to Millennials.â