The Pew Research Center just released another alarming study that shows that the number of people who identify themselves as Christian has dropped by 8 points in 7 years. In 2007, 78.4% of Americans called themselves Christians and in 2014 it fell to 70.6%. And the number of people who say they have no religious affiliation, because they are either atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” has risen 6 points from 16.1% to 22.8%. Most of the decline comes in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, such as the Episcopal church and the ELCA . The number of Evangelicals only dropped by 1%.
The study really doesn't go into why people are disassociating themselves from denominational churches, though. On a recent Diane Rehm show the experts assembled connected this to the fact that an increasing number of people are abandoning institutions in general, like political parties and civic organizations. People just aren't joining any groups in the numbers they used to. Other observations are that a larger percentage of the unaffiliated are found among the affluent and those with higher education. It was speculated that the better off people are materially, the less they feel they need God. Other explanations are that people feel that religion and science conflict or that religions exclude too many people. Some speculate that the internet is to blame by presenting lots of information and many points of view. Others say that people are too busy to go to church.
There's probably some truth in all of these speculations. But except for one of them, they don't really touch on the truth of Christianity. They are largely feelings: “I don't feel like joining a group of people;” “I don't feel physically or financially insecure and so don't feel I need to be saved;” “I don't feel that people should be excluded;” “I don't feel that I have to listen to a church to form a point of view;” “I don't feel I have the time.” On that last one, I haven't noticed that people feel they don't have the time to watch the latest blockbuster movie or binge watch an entire TV series on Netflix, both of which take a lot longer than a church service.
So whether or not Christianity is true is not the issue in most cases; it's whether people want it or not. It's like people who reject vaccines; it has nothing to do with science. Study after study shows vaccines do not cause autism. Autism starts in the womb. The refusal to have your kids vaccinated has more to do with how you feel about drug companies or government mandates on the individual. In the same way, it doesn't look like a lot of people are saying “I have proof that Jesus wasn't the Son of God.” It's more like, “I just don't want to be part of a group of people following Jesus, regardless of whether there's truth to his claims.”
Now the one seeming exception to these emotional reasons is the people who think that religion and science are antithetical. But that is rarely based on a good hard look at the evidence. It is largely due to their reactions to scientists and fundamentalist Christians who insist on making statements on things outside their areas of expertise. Polls show that the majority of Catholics, Orthodox and mainline Protestant Christians and their denominations accept evolution as the mechanism by which God created the species. In fact a number of notable scientists who are theists accept it, including Alfred Russel Wallace who wrote a joint paper with Charles Darwin in 1858 proposing the theory of evolution. Many scientists who are Christians accept it today including paleontologist Robert T. Bakker and geneticist Francis Collins. Only those who insist on interpreting the first chapters of Genesis literally reject it. And to do so they must assert that the Bible was meant to be a science book despite it being written millennia before anything that could be called science existed.
Are there areas in which science and theology seem to hard to reconcile? Of course. Are there also areas within the sciences themselves where the evidence and our understanding of it seem to contradict and where scientists take up different sides against each other? Yes. And yet nobody gives up on science, because they figure that the more we know the easier it will be to reconcile the data some day. Much the same can be said of theology. These are ongoing efforts in two fields of human inquiry and any current difficulties may be resolved as we learn more. Only by unscientifically insisting that what we know now is the last word on anything can one say these things are irreconcilably opposed.
I think Martin Luther King Jr. was right to point out that science is largely concerned with questions of how and religion with questions of why. They are two very different ways of approaching our large and complex universe and assessing our place in it. Few people would want questions of ethics and human values answered on the basis of science alone, nor would most people want science to stop investigating and refer all scientific questions to a book mostly concerned with how we should live and behave.
As we said, most of the reasons seem to be concerned with personal feelings. Let's look at a few of these.
In the year 2000 Robert D. Putnam wrote the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it he examined the decline in face to face social interactions in America. He cites the loss in membership and volunteer participation in such civil organizations as Scouts, the PTA, churches and political parties. Voting attendance figures are low. People are distrustful of governments and institutions. And, yes, fewer people are bowling in leagues anymore. As this was before the dominance of smartphones, Putnam couldn't mention how people today will go places together and yet totally ignore their physically present family and friends to look at a tiny screen instead. And while some say this trend has reversed itself, it is true that churches continue to decline. Why?
One hypothesis was that people are better educated and better educated people tend to be skeptical. But actually while more people are getting some college, only 22% of all adults in America have a bachelor's degree. Now 25% of atheists and agnostics have graduated from college, but they don't make up 22% of the US. Only 3% of the population are atheists and another 4% are agnostics. The majority of those who give their religion as “none,” 15% of the population, have the same level of education as most Americans and also hold some spiritual beliefs. So education may be a factor but not for most of those who are not formally religious.
And let us remember that being a college grad is not the same as being wise. 95% of congressmen have academic degrees with nearly half being lawyers and yet often express views which make one doubt their intelligence. More seriously, a 2004 study of 152,000 children found that “Unvaccinated children tended to be white, to have a mother who was married and had a college degree, to live in a household with an annual income exceeding $75,000 and to have parents who expressed concerns regarding the safety of vaccines and indicated that medical doctors have little influence over vaccination decisions for their children.” These aren't Luddites; they are well-educated people making deeply foolish decisions. Education is not necessarily the same as wisdom.
The most obvious fact about the “nones” is that they are young. Only 17% of Baby Boomers are religiously unaffiliated, as are 23% of Generation X. But between 34 and 36% of Millennials are unaffiliated. To quote a PBS headline on a different study by the Pew Research Center “Many Millennials are skipping church, marriage and political affiliations...” They tend to be single and self-described political independents. So one reason we are seeing less Millennials in the pews is that they don't “do” institutions.
But more insightful is a 2012 Millennial Values Survey. The good news is that 76% of young adults feel that modern Christianity has “good values and principles.” 63% say that Christianity “consistently shows love for other people.” The bad news is that 58% say that today's Christianity is hypocritical; 62% say it's judgmental; and 64% feel it is anti-gay.
First let's look at the charge that we are hypocritical. You can certainly see where that is coming from: TV evangelists who dress in thousand-dollar suits, live in luxurious mansions and demand $64 million planes, yet claim to follow a poor carpenter; a church that doesn't defrock pedophile priests or turn them over for prosecution but who covers this up and just moves the priests to other parishes where they do it all over again; politicians who loudly proclaim themselves Christians while advocating policies that harm the poor and oppressed. And because these people get a lot of news coverage, the fact that many more Christians help others through food pantries, clothing banks, feeding the homeless, literacy programs, disaster relief, supporting clinics and many other things get overlooked.
But there is one thing that many Christians do that is hypocritical. We say we follow Jesus. Jesus accepted any who came to him, prince or prostitute. He denounced the Pharisees for seeing some people as more acceptable than others. And yet we do the same. Even though we parrot the fact that we are all sinners, that all of us need God's grace, that the good news is about God's love and forgiveness being offered to all, we draw the line at certain sins. And we excuse other sins. Usually we look down on those whose indulge in the hotblooded sins of lust, laziness, rage and gluttony, while we give a pass to those who exhibit the coldblooded sins of greed, envy and arrogance. We look down on sins of commission, doing something bad, more than sins of omission, not doing something good. We are more disdainful of personal sins than social sins. We are more forgiving of successful and popular people when they sin than of unsuccessful and unpopular people. This picking and choosing of who is worthy of forgiveness is hypocritical and people know it and it drives them from the church.
And this ties into the charge that Christians are judgmental. Jesus said, “Judge not lest you be judged.” A better translation is “Do not condemn or pass a verdict.” Because while it is prudent to judge actions and speech that seem to be bad, we cannot pass final judgment on others. Only God can. For all we know the person is doing the best he can. But to render a judgment on a whole person's life based on what little we know of them is unfair. To reduce a person to his sins is unjust. How would you like to be permanently labeled by the worst thing you ever did? Doubting Thomas is nowhere in scripture called that. We tagged him with that nickname when he was the only one of the 11 disciples to whom Jesus had not yet appeared that Easter. And even those who saw the risen Jesus had trouble believing at first, thinking he was a ghost. But Thomas has for 2000 years been singled out as the guy who had doubts that his friend had come back from the dead.
And we also tend to label people based on what they did as if that is all they ever will be. And understandably, that drives people from the church.
As to the charge of being anti-gay, it could be leveled at a lot of people outside the church as well, including people who have since changed their minds. A lot of Christians and a lot of denominations have changed their minds. But some of the most vocal have not. And some are still wrestling with exactly how they should deal with the issue. There is not enough time at present to go into the whole area of homosexuality and gay marriage but one thing is crystal clear: as Christians we must love everyone. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, which to him means anyone we encounter. Jesus told us to love our enemy. There is no one left whom we can hate. However one feels about a person's actions our approach to one and all must be love. That means working for the good of the other person. We cannot work for or advocate their harm. We cannot try to bring back punishments that applied to people living under the old covenant in Bronze Age Israel. We do not live there or then. We live under the new covenant, the covenant of grace, established by Jesus who died for all and who invites all to come to him.
It is possible that the Millennials will come to the church when they have kids, as people usually do. Like marriage, they are delaying childbearing as well. They may return too when they find that trying to be a Lone Ranger spiritual person lacks the support and joy that being part of a community dedicated to following the Spirit of Jesus offers.
But they won't return if we continue to be seen as hypocritical, judgmental and against people of any kind rather than welcoming all who are called by Christ. And we must change these things not for appearance's sake but because they are not Christian. Jesus hated hypocrisy. He told us not to pass judgment on others. And he welcomed the outcasts and despised people of his time. He touched lepers and menstruating women which would make him ritually unclean. He taught women which was considered scandalous. He didn't insist the woman caught in adultery or the Samaritan woman or Zacchaeus change before he would protect them or talk to them or eat with them. To do otherwise would be to put up a barrier to entering the kingdom of God, something Jesus criticized the Pharisees for doing. We are not called upon to judge, but to love and to invite people into the kingdom. We are all broken and all in need of God's grace.
Most of those who came to Jesus came for healing. Only then did they hear the gospel. If people want healing today, do you think it occurs to most of them that the church is the place to go? If not, why not? And what are we going to do about it?