The Church's Place in a Secular America

The cross is the centerpiece for Christian evangelism

The Pew Research Center on Tuesday released its second survey of American religious practices in the last few years. The first “Religious Landscape Study” was released in 2007 and fell on American churches like a bombshell. The reason was it was the first study to document the nation’s growing secularization by making public a demographic grouping called “Nones,” those who have no religious affiliation whatsoever. In the 2007 study Nones comprised 16% of all adults. For a nation that—at the time—considered itself generally religious, that number was a bitter pill to swallow. To make matters worse, the Millennial generation (born 1981-1996) had a much higher rate of Nones than any other age category, with over one-third claiming no religious belief. The future of the American church as a whole felt threatened by the news.


This week Pew published the results of a follow-up study, and the results are both encouraging and discouraging, depending on where you stand on religion in America. On the plus side the new numbers show those who count themselves as “Religious” are more religious as a group today than they were seven years ago:


The portion of religiously affiliated adults who say they regularly read scripture, share their faith with others and participate in small prayer groups or scripture study groups all have increased modestly since 2007. And roughly four-in-ten religiously affiliated adults (41%) now say they rely mainly on their religious beliefs for guidance on questions about right and wrong, up 7 percentage points in seven years.


The study also has startlingly bad news regarding the overall state of religious interest. The new numbers show the percentage of Nones in the total population continues to grow; in fact, it has accelerated. From the 16% of the earlier survey, the 2014 number is 23%, a 7 point or 44% growth in seven years. That’s a huge increase in a short time. America is becoming a secular nation at a much faster rate than anyone would have thought possible. The overwhelming acceptance of homosexual marriage in less than a decade is proof of just how fast this change is occurring.


But the trend reflected in the Pew report doesn’t just reflect views held by certain groups within the larger population. Churches are caught in the same trend because we’re a part of the larger culture. What happens in the nation as a whole always trickles down into local congregations and all of us in ministry can vouch for the fact that our churches, too, are affected by this growing disconnect from traditional religious convictions. Church attendance, for instance, is undergoing a profound change, with most people attending on a less frequent basis. Financial support is another area where the landscape has changed. The decline in giving patterns since 2007 in every Christian denomination is well documented. Another indicator is the general church restlessness that leads people to move from congregation to congregation on a regular basis. Staying in one congregation for a lifetime—which was at one time the norm in American church life—is a thing of the past.


The challenge for those of us in church leadership is to identify not just the core issues the Pew report identifies but, more importantly, to begin charting new directions for our congregations as we move into the new America.


Lauren Markcoe, writing in the Religion News Service, gives us some help here, although I don’t think she intended it. In a piece yesterday she pulls out a remarkable confession that puts the accelerating trend of secularism in a clearer light:


These trends make sense, said Andrew Walsh, a historian of American religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in that religious affiliation in America today is “increasingly shaped by individual choice and less by inheritance from a family or community.”


Religion today is “increasingly shaped by individual choice.” That phrase leaps off the page because it’s at the same time so true and so challenging. American spirituality is today directed by the same current that flows beneath almost everything else. Our culture is driven by personal preference. Why should religion be different? We choose religious convictions—or don’t—not so much according to spiritual conviction or truth value but on the basis of preference. Religion for many Americans is on the same level as selecting a cell phone, choosing a college, shopping for shoes, eating at a restaurant, painting a house or getting a haircut.


How do American churches press forward with the gospel in a culture that is not only rapidly becoming secular but one that is also building its future on a foundation at odds with the basic truths of our faith? What are the choices the church must make in order to continue its mission? While the Pew report will take weeks to digest, here is a general theological truth followed by a few immediate points I’m going over in my own head.


The theological truth is that in a culture like ours, where personal preference is the idol of the age, universally accepted and worshiped, the cross takes on an even greater significance. Nothing could be more counter-cultural today than to announce that the way to life lies only in dying to self. We should take Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23-24 as our touchstone, our hope and our message:


“And he said to them all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.'”


With the message of the cross–which is nothing less than the gospel itself–as the centerpiece, here are several strategic thoughts that the Pew study brings to mind:


  • This isn’t a sociological or demographic issue. It’s a spiritual issue, and in this regard nothing has changed for the church. Every age is the same, from first century Rome to sixteenth Century Germany to twentieth century China to twenty-first century America. Regardless of the culture around the church, we always are called to the same essential tasks. We preach and teach the gospel. We pray. We worship. We disciple. The template for churches never changes. For me as a local church pastor, that’s the greatest thing to remember.


  • Ministry to the Millennials (born 1981-1996) is crucial. This group is shedding the religion of their parents as fast as they can, and their secularization is the main force driving the nation’s tilt in that direction. Figuring out ways to effectively evangelize and disciple this generation is the great challenge we face.


  • Ruthlessly analyze our existing church ministries and programs to determine their usefulness in actually making disciples of Jesus. This is the hardest thing in church life I know of—because every program a church has in place has both legacy and advocates behind it. But in the new America, the only measurement for success is the making of disciples.


  • Build authentic Christian community. In a nation rapidly discarding every reminder of its Christian heritage, the presence of vibrant Christian communities in the middle of national life aren’t so much a form of protest as they are a model of gospel witness.

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