Some people love the opening of baseball season and the ensuing conversation. Personally, I find the discussion following the "Pew has a new poll" season even more fascinating. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released "'Nones' on the Rise" (http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx), so this month I feel quite like all those baseball fans who thrill at the first pitch on opening day.
Each time they publish their findings, a certain portion of the Christian world, especially the mainline Protestant clan and some evangelicals now in decline, engage in what amounts to hand-wringing. Their reaction is of the "Oh Lord, we are no longer the majority, what are we going to do in our new minority status?" variety. This group starts brainstorming how to once again reach those who mostly aren't interested in being reached.
There is another Christian subset that responds to these Pew updates with something approaching glee. This group's voice is recently tempered, a bit less shrill, as even this bastion of conservative Christian commitment sees flagging membership and participation--but they are still out there. I can actually quote directly from someone in this camp, since they tweeted back at me when I first posted the Pew study: "Revisionist theology does not give birth to disciples of Christ--but does give rise to those who see all religions as equally valid. That we see this remarkable rise in the number of spiritual invalids should be no surprise given what has been preached from American pulpits for decades." It's all the fault of liberal Protestantism, see?
This group isn't at all interested in reaching the "nones" unless they magically find their way back to the conservative, rule-based and doctrinally-centered core of true Christianity.
As a weird hipster Lutheran, I have a completely other response. I am, to begin with, happy with the increase in the number of people reporting their status as "nones." I am happy that the nones feel free to be authentic about their religious commitments (or lack thereof). The Pew report states, "These trends suggest that the ranks of the unaffiliated are swelling in surveys partly because Americans who rarely go to services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether." Praise God, I say. People in in North America are apparently now more free than they ever have been to state who they actually are, without fear. Conformity to the majority religiosity of our nation is less demanded, and I say that is all to the good.
My second reaction, equally strong, is... let's go on a road trip! If the nones are not out there "looking for" religious community (88% report they aren't even looking), then those of us who are part of religious communities, and sense a continuing call to proclaim the gospel, now have a place to go and a people to reach. Billboards and mailers aren't going to cut it. We have the tremendous opportunity to go where the "nones" are, where they hang out. Since they aren't seekers, and don't plan to be, the onus is on us. We get to seek.
Which leads to my third reaction... real life is messy. I'm thrilled by this opportunity, if also scared and nervous. Trying to live faith where people are, rather than draw people to the place we think we can safely practice faith, is no small thing. I was trained to live Christian faith in community that already has a certain shape. To get out into the world of the unaffiliated and figure out how to bear Christ there, well, that's both awesome opportunity and tremendous challenge. But I'm game.
Finally, it's probably worth reminding ourselves that even though Protestants now make up "only" 48% of the populations, that's still a whopping 48%. The nones, though a growing group, still feel like a minority, and a beleaguered minority at that. Just spend time talking to those who are religiously unaffiliated, and you will learn they are overwhelmed at times by our zeal, our stumbling attempts at evangelism and outreach. Many are nones for a reason. At the very least, the call of the religious community in response to news from Pew, is to be a non-anxious presence. Instead of upping our anxiety at our diminishing numbers, perhaps we are called, even more than heretofore, to empathize with those religious (and non-religious) groups who are truly minorities.
The Pew study was released on-line, which is often a recipe for failing to read the footnotes. All the footnotes in this study are worth attention, in fact in some cases are even more interesting than the summary findings themselves. I found footnote 11 especially illuminating, "Studies have found that some survey respondents switch back and forth between describing themselves as affiliated and unaffiliated. Researchers call such people 'liminals' because they seem to straddle the threshold of a religious tradition, partly in and partly out. In a 2006 survey and follow-up interviews in 2007, Robert Putnam and David Campbell found that roughly 10% of the members of each major religious tradition can be considered liminals. Moreover, they found that although the liminals’ nominal affiliation changed (in either direction) from one year to the next, their self-reported religious beliefs and practices remained largely the same. This may be seen as further evidence that the rise in the number of unaffiliated Americans is not just a reflection." Such description should increase our sensitivity within our own traditions to the sense of liminality many of our own members feel within our tradition.
And then there is footnote 12, which offers a glimmer of hope for the hand-wringers. "Nevertheless, there is substantial switching from unaffiliated to affiliated. In the current survey, four-in-ten adults who say they were raised unaffiliated now identify themselves as religiously affiliated."
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas