On the Threshold:  Religious Liminals

On the Threshold:  Religious Liminals September 22, 2017


Religion surveys ask you to check a box that describes your religious beliefs.  But that would only be a snapshot of a moment in time.  More sophisticated studies are finding that religious beliefs can be fluid.  On one day, a person may believe in God.  But not on another day.  And on other days be unsure.  Scholars are putting forward a new term to describe those who are on the “threshold” of belief:  “religious liminals” (from the term for “threshold”).

Christian sociologist Bradley Wright discusses this research in his post  20% of Americans are on the Threshold of Religion  for Christianity Today‘s blog The Exchange.

He says that many of the “nones,” those saying they have no religion, are actually “liminals.”  He says that as many as 20% of Americans are actually on the “threshold” of religion.

Reportedly, 20% of Americans are “nones.”  So that means that some of the 80% of Americans who do have a religious affiliation are also on the threshold.

Prof. Wright cites research by Michael Hout, who studied people’s responses about their religion at two year intervals for six years.  (For the study, see Prof. Hout’s article Religious Ambivalence, Liminality, and the Increase of No Religious Preference in the United States, 2006–2014, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.)

Prof. Hout estimates that 70% of Americans always have a religious affiliation, 10% never have one, and 20% sometimes do and sometimes do not.

If we put the different statistics together, this would suggest that of the 20% of Americans who are “nones,” half of them might be liminals.  And of the 80% of Americans who are religiously affiliated, if only 70% are firmly committed, one out of eight of the members of a typical congregation are on liminals; that is, on the threshold of leaving.  (Is my math right?)

Prof. Wright draws out the implications for evangelism.  The non-Christian you are witnessing to might be closer than you think.

Pastors should also realize that quite a few members of their congregation are also likely “liminals,” who might be struggling with their faith and are on the verge of giving it up.

Yes, I know that a person is either in a “state of grace” or not.  But it is possible to lose one’s faith, though perhaps “liminality” means that God is in the process of bringing His estranged children back.

What are the implications of this category for evangelism, preaching, and pastoral care?


Illustration by santiagotorresl95, via Pixabay, CC0, Creative Commons

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