INSIDE STORY: Nearly half leave religion of their youth
The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, a poll of 35,000 adults by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, made front-page news across the nation recently.
The big headline: About 44 percent of Americans have changed religions or denominations from the one — if any — in which they were raised.
Think Churches of Christ are exempt?
In a report last fall, Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth in Searcy, Ark., presented preliminary results of a nationwide survey of alumni of colleges and universities associated with
Churches of Christ.
• Sixty percent continue to identify “Churches of Christ” as their religious preference.
• Twenty percent have left Churches of Christ and are members of another group.
• Twenty percent have left and have no church affiliation.
As Pew researchers described it, “Constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace, as every major religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing adherents.”
Put another way: “Nearly all church growth is the result of a circulation of the saints. Very little significant church growth occurs as a result of converting the unsaved, except for the conversion of one’s offspring.”
That’s how Scott Thumma at the Harding Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut characterized the American religious scene in a January interview with Christian Chronicle editor Lynn McMillon. The Pew survey bears out Thumma’s view.
Interestingly, the 44 percent figure reported by Pew includes only those who have left their childhood religion or denomination. It does not take into account the “church hopping” that so frequently occurs within denominations — and, yes, within Churches of Christ.
What does this all mean?
The negative point of view: We live in a self-centered, consumeristic society. Many of us shop for churches like we do breakfast cereal.
I mean, if Cheerios aren’t my favorite, don’t I deserve Captain Crunch — with a toy prize inside, please?
Park Linscomb, minister of the Manchester, N.H., church, makes the reasonable case that we lose 20- and 30-year-olds to “entertainment-rich, mall-imitating” community churches because “we have steered so far away from claims to be ‘the only church’ that we have failed to distinguish the true from the false.”
He fears that young people leave our fellowship for celebrity pastors and shallow theology because we have produced “a Bible-knowledge-poor generation.”
On the other hand, Yeakley suggests that the 20 percent of former members in his survey now affiliated with another religious group include “some of the most spiritually minded and evangelistic of the young people in Churches of Christ.”
Like me, Jeff Foster, with Manuelito Navajo Children’s Home in Gallup, N.M., read the Pew findings.
His analysis: “People, by and large, are starved for a faith that is genuine and relational-based rather than institutional and traditional. … People want to know Christ, not simply know about Christ.”
In many cases, though, Americans surveyed by Pew identified not with a particular denomination, but with no religion at all.
Sixteen percent of those polled said they are unaffiliated with any religion. That’s double the number who said they were not affiliated with any faith as children.
Other Pew findings that stuck out to me:
• Among Americans ages 18 to 29, one in four claimed no particular religion.
• Nearly one in five men of all ages said they have no formal religious affiliation, compared with 13 percent of women.
• Among people who are married, nearly four out of 10 have a spouse with a different religious affiliation than their own.
• The Midwest most closely resembles the religious makeup of the overall population. The South, by a wide margin, has the heaviest concentration of evangelical Protestant churches. The Northeast has the greatest concentration of Catholics, and the West has the largest proportion of unaffiliated people, including the largest proportion of atheists and agnostics.
As I was studying the Pew report, someone forwarded me an e-mail from Jared Looney, a New York house church planter profiled by the Chronicle in July 2006.
Looney basically acknowledged the difficulty in trying to make sense of all the numbers and figure out the best way to reach the lost in America.
But he came back to a simple ideal: the call to basic discipleship.
“I pray that we can be authentic followers of Jesus,” he wrote.