By Alan Rudnick
The Pew Research Center released its 2015 U.S. Religious Landscape Study and it can be confusing to read. According to The Atlantic, it can be challenging to interpret the massive data dump of spiritual information because of the nature of polling.
With about 35,000 respondents, the survey outlines the changes in Americans’ attitudes toward religion, spirituality, belief in God, prayer, worship attendance and morality. Depending on how you read the data with or without context, Americans are less religious or have about the same religiosity compared to seven years ago. No matter how you read the data, here are the four realities of 21st-century religious life you need to know.
America is still religious, but not like 50 years ago. For decades, public surveys reported a belief in God at around 92 percent to 95 percent. Now, that number is 89 percent. Despite that slight change, Americans go to church less. However, they still read their Bible, pray and share their faith — just not in church as much. Pew reported that small groups play a role in Americans’ frequency of spiritual practices. For many Christians, the 20th century is the norm, though studies reveal that the 20th century was uncharacteristically marked by high church attendance.
Churches have to work harder to earn trust and build relationships. There was a time when churches did not have to work very hard to get people to a church building. They just did! Now, 50 percent report attending a church service in the past month, down from 54 percent. Churches and pastors have to realize they need to spend more time, resources and attention with those not in their religious community. Carol Howard Merritt encourages us to have a drive to bond with peoples within our culture: “It’s the particular culture of church where the highest motivation is to love, care and be a part of a community. This culture prizes collaboration and teamwork.” In past decades, churches did not have to work as hard to reach and bond with individuals.
Evangelicals continue to experience the most growth in Christianity. As the Associated Press pointed out, “the overall number of evangelicals rose to 62 million people, or a quarter of the population, and evangelicals were the only major Christian group between 2007 and 2014 to gain more members than they lost.” Churches and pastors must realize that success in reaching people in order to grow churches will not be found in using your father’s religious language and practice. Evangelicals are among those few Christian groups who are reaching new believers and not attracting transferred growth from Christians switching their church membership.
The “nones” are a complex group. They are religious, non-religious, agnostic and atheist. The group of nones is not a lost cause. They do not like the polling labels that Pew and others groups use and Pew is beginning to recognize that. Nones are also weary of institutional religion. They are also cast-offs from churches which did not like their questions. The nones are not just a one-dimensional group but a mosaic of individuals. Most religious polling uses either-or questions and statements. Using limited responses often does not create an accurate picture of the nones.
As churches shed attenders, pastors and church leaders need to see these trends and take action. Churches must break the pattern of lament of “the good olde days.” The methods of the 20th century will not produce results in the 21st century. Church leaders must chart a new course to reach people in the 21st century.