Where are the unchurched going?

unchurchedGood for USA Today‘s By Cathy Lynn Grossman for writing about an important survey from the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Research group that showed that people who do not go to church are finding religion elsewhere. Not many mainstream news organizations picked this one up, but it is significant and worth a closer look than what is possible the day after the numbers are released.

The survey looks at the “unchurched,” which is defined as those people who have not attended a single religious services — including churches, synagogues or mosques — in the last six months. In other words, it is looking at a section of America that journalists on the religion beat generally would not report on, but ought to.

The results are hardly surprising. The message coming out of the research group that these Americans are tired of dogmatic beliefs, but aren’t necessarily hostile towards organized religion as long as it doesn’t make them uncomfortable or keep them from their philosophical couch:

Non-churchgoers “lean to a generic god that fits into every imaginable religious system, even when (systems) contradict one another,” Stetzer says. “If you went back 100 years in North America, there would have been a consensus that God is the God in the Bible. We can’t assume this any longer.

“We no longer have a home-field advantage as Christians in this culture.”

Most of the unchurched (86%) say they believe they can have a “good relationship with God without belonging to a church.” And 79% say “Christianity today is more about organized religion than loving God and loving people.”

As usual, the problem with these types of stories that rely almost solely on polls is that the only people quoted are those who conducted the poll. It would be interesting to get a wider range of views on these results, but as I said above, that is not an easy thing to do the day after the numbers are released.

There is also an aspect of the story that goes unanswered: Where are these Americans going for their religious and spiritual needs? This question of course assumes that they admit they have spiritual and religious needs. One gets the feeling throughout the story that Oprah and her America is part of the answer the unchurched are seeking:

“So much of American religion today is therapeutic in approach, focused on things you want to fix in your life,” he says.

“The one-to-one approach is more attractive. People don’t go to institutions to fix their problems.

“Most people have already heard the basic Christian message. The question for evangelism now is: Do you have a take that is authentic and engaging in a way that works for the unchurched?”

I guess you could counter and say that Oprah is an institution in this country. How many people actually end up on her couch compared to the number of viewers? But that is another topic for another post.

This trend in the United States is part of a broader story of Americans ceasing to participate in organizations and disconnecting from their local communities. But that only tells half of the story about the growth of the unchurched. There is a spiritual and theological aspect of the story as well. First there is the problem of the various churches that drive people away from the institutions for various reasons, and secondly there is the greater appeal of today’s modern spiritual leaders such as Oprah.

What is the spiritual attraction of those like Oprah, and who else is out there replacing the traditional role of the church?

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  • Mike Lambert

    You asked: “What is the spiritual attraction of those like Oprah, and who else is out there replacing the traditional role of the church?”

    Based on my own observations (i.e., my friends), it seems to me the attraction is based on:
    1. The focus on “self” over “other” – who doesn’t want to be the real center of te universe, and besides, sacrificial-level giving to others is hard work, and don’t we already have a ton of hard work to do just to pay the bills?
    2. The status quo is unchallenged – whereas Christianity (speaking from a Catholic perspective, I don’t want to assume anything about other Christian traditions I don’t know a lot about) calls us to conversion to something very counter-cultural that appears virtually impossible, “Oprahism” and it’s companion spiritualities start from the assumption that the values of modern American life are good…again, it’s much less work, and the path of Oprahism points to the good life, whereas Christ commands us to pick up out cross, expect persecution, etc.

    This is kinda off the cuff, so I wonder what others might think…

  • http://markkelly.wordpress.com Mark Kelly

    I don’t think the research actually found “Non-attendees find faith outside church.” If you look at the results posted on lifewayresearch.com, it looks more like the survey gauged attitudes toward the church and Christians. While one question asked whether a person could have a good relationship with God outside the church, the survey didn’t explore whether/how respondents did that.

  • Rathje

    I think the lack of in-depth conversations with those who were the subject of the study is a real weakness. I’ve seen the media focus on the faddish, the superficial, the controversial, and the trendy too often in other religious traditions to be entirely trusting when they turn their eyes on a new sort of spiritual movement. The religion they describe in the article sounds superficial, self-centered, and ethically bankrupt (one you get past the veneer of motivational jargon and “ethicalness”).

    But somehow, I don’t think I’m getting the whole story.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The world is looking for spirituality without (a) doctrine and (b) doctrine that limits that personal actions, in particular. Think ’60s.

  • Chris Bolinger

    While I know how difficult it is to construct a meaningful and valid survey and I don’t want to be too hard on Lifeway, I have some serious concerns with this survey and advise caution in how the results are interpreted. My primary concerns are:
    * It was a telephone survey (actually, two)
    * Some of the questions were less than stellar
    * In totality, the questions are biased in a weird way

    Based on the PowerPoint presentation on the Lifeway site, respondents were asked if they strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with a set of statements. Some of these statements are OK from a survey standpoint:
    * God, a higher or supreme being, actually exists
    * There exists only one God, the God described in the Bible
    * The God of the Bible is no different from the gods or spiritual beings depicted by world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.
    * If someone wanted to tell me what she or he believed about Christianity, I would be willing to listen
    * I have at least one close friend who considers himself or herself a Christian
    * Christians I know talk to me about their beliefs too often
    * I would enjoy an honest conversation with a friend about religious and spiritual beliefs even if we disagree

    Other statements are problematic from a survey standpoint:
    * I believe I can have a good relationship with God without being involved in a church
    * Jesus died and came back to life
    * Believing in Jesus makes a positive difference in a person’s life
    * The church is full of hypocrites, people who criticize others for doing the same things they do themselves
    * The Christian religion is a relevant and viable religion for today
    * I think Christianity today is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people
    * Christians get on my nerves

    Problems:
    * The term “relationship with God” is used by a segment of evangelical Christians and may strike some non-Christians and Christians, especially males, as odd
    * Rather than “Jesus died and came back to life”, the survey should have used two statements, one as to whether or not Jesus ever existed as a person, and the other as to whether or not Jesus was simply a person or something more
    * The term “Believing in Jesus” is undefined and inherently biased, and reactions to it would be all over the map and impossible to interpret
    * In the statement about “hypocrites”, the term “the church” is undefined, and the overall statement is poorly constructed and inflammatory; a statement comparing “Christians I know” or “religious people I know” to others would have been preferable
    * In the statement about the Christian religion, the term “and viable” is undefined and superfluous
    * In the statement about Christianity today, the term “loving God” is similar to “relationship with God” and is problematic for the same reason
    * The statement “Christians get on my nerves” is so broad that the response provides little value

  • http://yechezkiel.livejournal.com keh

    tmatt says:
    January 12, 2008, at 10:53 am

    The world is looking for spirituality without (a) doctrine and (b) doctrine that limits that personal actions, in particular. Think ’60s.

    Yes, think ’60s; because it’s the people stuck in ’60s culture who think and act this way, I believe. (Prepare for anecdote!) Thankfully, there is a growing generation gap in attitudes towards religion that started with Gen-X and has become much larger with my generation. I’ve noticed that we are much likely to be either a) traditionalists in our faith or b) simply reject faith altogether. There isn’t as much patience with New Age and “Oprahism” among the young.

  • Jerry

    I put this survey together with earlier studies such as http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_tren.htm which asserts findings such as:

    - The numbers of “unchurched” people has increased rapidly in the U.S. These are individuals who have not attended church in recent months.

    - Agnosticis, Atheists, secularists. and NOTAs (none of the above) are growing rapidly.

    - Interest in new religious movements (e.g. New Age, Neopaganism) is growing rapidly. In particular, Wiccans are doubling in numbers about every 30 months.

    - The influence of the central, program-based congregation is diminishing as more cell churches are being created.

    - Many Christians have left congregations and formed house churches – small groups meeting in each other’s homes.

    There’s an interesting point there. Does the term unchurched reflect only attending structures which are called churches? The cell and house churches might not be counted. The expansion of this trend seems to imply people reaching back to try to capture the earliest spirit of Christianity – reaching to a time just a few years after the Crucifixion. Are these people really “unchurched” in the sense of not getting together at all for any sort of worship or not being part of a formal church? People might not attend a church but be conservative in their religious beliefs? So how are the unchurch/attending home churches different in belief from those attending a regular church? There are many fascinating questions here but the survey that caused this topic just scratched the surface in providing answers.

    It’s not surprising that people who don’t attend church don’t understand what the Bible teaches, McConnell added…79 percent think Christianity “is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people.”

    This assumes that only a preacher can tell you what the Bible says – that people are too dumb or something to read it for themselves. I seem to remember a great schism about that in the past. It seems to me that 79% know what the greatest two commandments are and measure churches against that divine standard.

    The comments on the survey disparage the belief that there is only one Christ who has come in different forms in different times with the same message in different words. It is perfectly possible to read the Bible and agree with the statement “I am the way” and believe that this refers to the Christ (Avatar) not just to the historical Jesus. I grant that is not acceptable doctrine to many.

  • Julia

    It’s not surprising that people who don’t attend church don’t understand what the Bible teaches, McConnell added.

    This assumes that only a preacher can tell you what the Bible says – that people are too dumb or something to read it for themselves. I seem to remember a great schism about that in the past

    This doesn’t appear to mean that only a preacher can tell you what the Bible says – just that non-attendance at church usually indicates a lack of interest in reading the Bible – hence they don’t know what the Bible teaches and probably don’t even have a Bible.

    If the Bible is so understandable to the untutored individual, why is the Christian book industry making so many millions and millions each year, interpreting Biblical wisdom as it relates to saving your soul to greif support to diets to saving your marriage to straightening out your finances. If the Bible needs no explanation, why are these books (written by preachers) so popular?

    . .79 percent think Christianity “is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people.”

    This reminds me of every caucus and primary season where people who are not politically active are so unhappy with the Democratic and Republican parties. It is those organized parties who do the yeoman’s work and provide a great deal of the funds to elect their respective party’s nominees. It used to be the political party and its committed members who presented its nomineeto the public. Now the disparaging, uncommitted folks who are above the partisan fray want to determine who the parties’ candidates are. BUT they still expect that the organized parties will do the hard work involved in elections.

    If there were no organized churches and only house and cells – Christianity would soon either get organized as happened in antiquity or dissolve into thousands and thousands of sects soon becoming unrecognizable as a coherent set of beliefs. Just as in politics, the uncommitted are doing their thing in an atmosphere stabilized by the organized churches.

  • NBR

    Has LifeWay research actually posted a copy of the survey questions online? I haven’t seen one. I find Chris Bolinger’s concerns (comment 5, above) about the survey to be very much on point here. They are obviously directed not at understanding the beliefs of the “unchurched” (a problematic term to begin with) but at figuring out the best way to evangelize them. As such the survey provides some interesting and valuable information, but it shouldn’t be taken for more than it is, namely a tool aimed at more effectively spreading a particular Evangelical brand of Protestant Christianity. It seems to elide whatever conceptual difference there might be between “religion” in general and evangelical Christianity in particular.

    Tmatt says:

    The world is looking for spirituality without (a) doctrine and (b) doctrine that limits that personal actions, in particular. Think ’60s.

    But that seems to miss a crucial point. Can you imagine a genuinely “unchurched” person going out and actively seeking “doctrine that limits personal actions” for its own sake? Whatever for? In other words, why would the unchurched see this as anything but the default position? What’s the point of talking about dogma if you don’t accept, a priori, the validity of dogmatic truth-claims? You seem to see this as an example of the moral and intellectual laxity, not to say decadence, of the post-sixties world, and maybe it is. But it begs the question: why would a person who’d grown up outside the church even accept the postulated need for exclusive doctrinal commitments as part of his or her life? Why would he care in the first place? (Does this comment make sense?)

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    The bigest problems with polls, especially polls about religion is that most of the questions only allow for 1 of 5 simplisitc answers (ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree) when reality requires a 1500 word (at least) essay in response. (I can’t find the lifeway poll questions.) Polls might be good at telling us what but they are very bad at telling us why. I wish reporters would rely less on polls.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Reporters rely on poll results because:
    * Research organizations such as LifeWay rely on polls instead of the much more expensive, difficult, and “inconclusive” research to which Matt refers
    * There is no way that reporters are going to do the research themselves (and you wouldn’t want them to, anyway)

    Poll results can be instructive and revealing if the poll questions are constructed well. The LifeWay poll was constructed poorly. GIGO.

  • Darel

    Three words: “moralistic therapeutic Deism”

  • http://www.r3blog.net e. barrett

    “Most people have already heard the basic Christian message. The question for evangelism now is: Do you have a take that is authentic and engaging in a way that works for the unchurched?”

    I think I disagree with Philip Goff’s statement. And maybe this is just my own personal experience clouding my views, but I think the vast majority of people have never really heard the Christian message. At least not in a meaningful way.

    They probably know “Jesus died to save us.” But I don’t think most people have really stopped to consider what that means, because all they see are judgment and Ned Flanders.

    That’s why it’s so important for Christians, and churches, to be vulnerable and loving with the “unchurched.” That’s the best way to shatter those stereotypes. And it’s the best way to build trust with someone who has been hurt by organized religion. Then, maybe, they’ll be open to really hear the “basic Christian message.”


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