October 19 – When Everyone No Longer Is

It all depends on exactly when and where it was, but most American adults grew up in an era when “everyone” was a Christian.  As recently as the early 1990’s, well over 85% of all Americans self-identified as Christian, 60% or more as Protestants and 25% as Catholics. A recent, and much talked about, study by the Pew Research Center has taken the religious pulse of the country and the news confirms what many of us have suspected. As the New York Times headline put it, Percentage of Protestant Americans Is in Steep Decline, Study Finds.

According the study, Protestants now make up about 48% of the nation’s population and our numbers have fallen by 10% in the last five years alone. Catholics are down by 5%, their decline slowed by immigration and other factors. And, no, it is not a growing Muslim or Hindu population that is taking up the religious slack in the country.  It’s the “nones.” Now nearly 20% of the population, the number of those who claim no religious affiliation has more than doubled in the past 20 years and is up by a startling 30% in the last five. By the way, it is not the atheists who are finding their numbers swelling; it is the “nothing in particulars.”

One third of young adult are “nones” and most of them “nothing in particulars.” Over half of them claim to be religious or spiritual, but they can’t identify what they believe or, according to study, do much about it – they don’t pray privately and they don’t worship corporately; they like acts of service, but don’t join with those who do them.

So, for the first time since the founding, Protestants are no longer the majority. Not even by name. Not even by occasional worship attendance or checking a box on a form. And one in three twenty-somethings simply doesn’t care – they may be “spiritual” but they believe nothing in particular and do nothing in particular.

A Google news search on the Pew Study produces 10,800 results. People have been talking and thinking about all of this. I haven’t read all 10,800 articles, but of the ones I have, this from the Gospel Coalition stands out. You may read it for yourself; but let me highlight two thoughts.

Dan Sweeting, the author, offers six reflections. His second is this:

(2) Protestants (even evangelicals) have done a poor job of imprinting our identity on our children.
We have either focused on spiritual vibrancy without catechizing, or catechized without emphasizing spiritual vibrancy. Either way, we have lost ground with our youth. Church leaders need to think doubly hard about how we are going to reach and train up the next generation of Christians. We have to rethink the way we do children’s and youth ministry

Might I say that Langhorne Presbyterians are doing a poor job of imprinting our identity on our children?  Okay, that is a blanket statement and apologies to the exceptions. But I think it is true. And I would rephrase Sweeting’s last sentence, while agreeing with what he says, to We have to rethink – and redo – our understanding of what it means to be a Christian family

The absence of family prayer, devotions and Christian service combined with marginal church attendance and a school/sports/extra-curricular center to family life will, by the time our kids are young adults, produce nothing more than “nothing in particular” when it comes to Christian commitment. Guaranteed. If we don’t want our kids to be Christians, all we have to do is keep doing what we are doing.

Give me some pushback.

Pretty dismal stuff, I suppose, but I also agree with Sweeting’s final comment: The Pew study is another cultural indicator. Take note of it. Talk about it with other Christian leaders. And get ready for the wonderful yet incredible challenge ahead of us – to be truly Christian in this new environment.
There is a wonderful yet incredible challenge ahead of us – to be truly Christian in this new environment.