In our recent post “Only Moderate Religion Is On the Decline,” we reported on new research that paints a different picture of American religion than we have been assuming. Although this report contains good news for committed Christians, it also has implications that churches need to think through.
To review (see the link above for the details), religion in America isn’t declining at all. Yes, religious affiliation is on a downturn, but this can almost totally be accounted for by the departure of nominal Christians, “moderate” (a.k.a., “liberal”) believers, and others who have minimal commitment to the religion that they had been connected to. The percentage of Americans who have an “intense” involvement with their faith has stayed steady for the last 50 years at around 36%. Moreover, because the less committed are leaving the churches and other religious institutions, the religious “intensity” of those churches and institutions is increasing.
So what do we do with this information?
As with nearly all sociological research, we first need to notice the sense in which we are getting empirical proof for the perfectly obvious. Of course those who are most committed to their religion are not going to leave it. Of course those who are less committed are more likely to leave. That’s what it means to be “committed” and “less committed.”
It also makes logical sense that when the culture grows more hostile to religion, those with a lesser commitment to religion are more likely to leave it, so as to conform more to the culture. Conversely, those who remain in the religion despite the cultural hostility are likely to be strong believers and critics of their culture.
So the cadre of “intense” believers will still have to contend with and against the religiously hostile culture.
Also, most churches, including the most conservative churches, still have their share of nominal members. That is, Baptists or Pentecostals or Calvinists or Orthodox or Lutherans, etc., in name only. They belong to this church–or believe the church belongs to them–because they grew up in it, because they have family or community or ethnic ties to it, not because they necessarily believe in or even are very aware of what that church teaches.So these conservative churches are still likely to decline in membership. That will make them purer, to be sure, but also potentially poorer financially and less visible culturally.
One problem is that the “intense” believers may be scaring the “moderate” believers away. The study cited and linked to in our post above speculated that the less committed may be leaving churches because they are reacting against the political positions of their more “intense” brethren. I don’t think the study demonstrated that to be true, but it raises a possible issue. Certainly, “moderates” are going to be uncomfortable at displays of more “intense” religiosity than they are able to share, so naturally they will feel like they no longer belong with such people.
Now the knee jerk response of some church growth experts will be to recommend that churches become less intense as a way of winning over the less intense. But that is a formula for disaster and ignores what these studies are saying. In a secularist culture, “moderate” religion has no future. The “moderate” denominations are all withering on the vine.
The task for the church is to turn nominals and moderates into “intense” believers.
Evangelism is not just to bring in more people from the outside, though that is still necessary. This new research suggest that churches also need to evangelize their own members.
That would include people on the “inactive” list, members who seldom attend, relatives who have drifted away, youth who were formally active but have never come back since they went off to college, etc.
Evangelize them, but also teach them the beauty, richness, relevance, and spiritual vitality of the faith that they likely have known only superficially.
How might churches do this? What are other implications of this new research for churches today?
Illustration by geralt via Pixabay, CC0, Creative Commons