Sunday, August 20, 2017

Seminary CM10: The Rise of the Nones

This is the tenth post on the Contexts of Ministry in my Seminary in a Nutshell series. See the bottom for the previous posts in this unit, "The Person and Contexts of a Minister." I have completed one other unit in this series, The Pastor as Leader.
In this stretch of the Contexts of Ministry series, we are exploring the historical and cultural context of American Christianity. Today we are looking at the state of the American church in relation to the rising demographic of the "nones," those in America with no religious affiliation.

1. From 1990 to 2014, the number of individuals who do not identify with any religion whatsoever has almost tripled in America. In 1990 the number was 8.1%. In 2014 the number was 22.8%. Here is the Pew Research Data from 2014.

Here is a paragraph from the study: "The drop in the Christian share of the population has been driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Each of those large religious traditions has shrunk by approximately three percentage points since 2007. The evangelical Protestant share of the U.S. population also has dipped, but at a slower rate, falling by about one percentage point since 2007."

The drop is strongest among Millennials. "Fully 36% of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34% of older Millennials (ages 25-33). And fewer than six-in-ten Millennials identify with any branch of Christianity, compared with seven-in-ten or more among older generations, including Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers. Just 16% of Millennials are Catholic, and only 11% identify with mainline Protestantism. Roughly one-in-five are evangelical Protestants."

Unlike earlier generations, these young people are not re-entering the church after sowing their wild oats in college.

2. Ed Stetzer has offered an interesting evaluation of this phenomenon. He points out that the percentage of people attending church has remained pretty steady over the last 70 years. Indeed, the percentage of the American population that self-identified as evangelical had grown to 35% in 2014.

His conclusion was thus that the rise of the "nones" (no religious affiliation) was coming from nominal Christians. "Convictional Christianity" was going strong. "The nominals are becoming the nones and the convictional are remaining committed," Stetzer wrote.

There is perhaps a theological perspective to take here as well. Jesus said, "Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (7:14). We can wonder whether the number of "true believers" is ever really much more than 30%. Are the hoards of Americans who go to church true followers of Jesus Christ? It seems doubtful.

Hebrews 11:13-16 suggests that, in this current age, Christians are always strangers and exiles on the earth. Even when Christianity is culturally dominant, real Christians probably will only make up a minority. Indeed, the situation is perhaps most dangerous and deceptive when Christians think they are in the majority. When the institutions of society are "Christian," they probably aren't.

3. What are some of the cultural dynamics that may keep many Millennials from the church?

The "civil religion" tendencies of American Christians are probably a major factor in the decline of Christianity among Millennials. Civil religion is the inability for a person to tell the difference between God and country. Patriotism and political party tribalism mix imperceptibly with one's religion. Flag goes on pulpit. "Only Republicans can be Christians." No doubt when we have the next set of data we will find that the recent election has caused an even more significant drop in Christianity among Millennials.

Four out of five self-identified evangelicals apparently voted for Donald Trump to be president. It seems clear that Millennials consider him morally reprehensible. Despite a tape that came out with him boasting of his ability to grope women, despite hateful comments he made during the campaign toward countless types of individuals, despite video clips that seem to show a tendency not just to lie about big things but to lie about almost anything, still evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for him. To Millennials, greed and narcissism seem to be the only fixed points in his decision making process, with everything else free to change according to what he thinks is most advantageous to him at the moment.

An event this past week is only likely to increase this perception. Neo-Nazis, KKK, and white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia a week ago Saturday, and they were met by large numbers of anti-protesters, including an anti-fascist group called Antifa. One of the white nationalists plowed his car into a group of peaceful individuals, killing a young 22 year old woman. The President was not only slow to condemn the neo-Nazis, but appeared to view both sides as morally equivalent. While numerous individuals withdrew from Trump advisory boards, leading to their disbandment, his evangelical advisory board largely remained intact.

Fighting abortion, which we will see in a later post was the issue in the 1980s that corraled evangelicals more than anything else into the Republican corner, is not the central moral issue for Millennials. How you treat people who are not like you is the central concern. Millennials are also concerned for the planet and climate change in a way that is incomprehensible to many older evangelicals. Given this mix of values, American evangelicalism seems morally reprehensible to many of them.

This is an important point. It is not that they are uninterested in God or morality. It is that they actually consider evangelicals to be morally reprehensible in numerous respects. Christianity in this form seems immoral, even evil to them.

4. Issues of race and gender thus feature large in the Millennial moral perspective. White evangelicals--and the evangelical demographic is overwhelmingly white--tend to be blind to issues of color. Because they do not face the same history and biases, they often do not see the struggles of people of color. Indeed, when the cork of these pressures pops off, all they see is the disruptive result, not the structures that caused them. What they see is that such individuals are sometimes hired and they are not. This inability to see one's own advantages as a white person is called "white privilege."

To most Millennials, gay individuals are real people, their friends, their family. To much of white evangelicalism, gay individuals are somewhere else. They are an idea, a stereotype, a theological discussion. Millennials largely do not see the distinction between "loving the sinner, hating the sin." Many of us try to make careful distinctions between homosexual acts and the person doing them, but this distinction seems largely rejected by Millennials.

Accordingly, it is not surprising that even this past week, several Christian groups were labeled as hate groups, primarily for their lobby against gay marriage.

This cultural dynamic puts churches in a difficult place, and there will be many Millennials who will reject the church for this reason. Even more, churches may face significant difficulties from the state going forward because of our stances on these issues. After the reactionary blip of Trump is gone, these forces will likely rush forward on the church with a vengeance.

5. A recent book wrestling with Christianity and evolution has suggested that conflicts between science and faith are the number one reason young people leave the faith. Whether we like it or not, Millennials tend to see evangelicals as forces of ignorance in American culture. The technological revolution and the seemingly never ending stream of scientific improvements even in their lifetime have led them to believe that scientists are smart and genuinely in pursuit of truth.

So when scientists say, "Climate change is real and very dangerous" or "Evolution is beyond reasonable doubt," they tend to believe them. When the Bible is offered as a counter-argument, they ask "which Bible" or "whose interpretation of the Bible"? They have not grown up in isolation from other churches and religions. The internet has made it all available to them.

We will have to see fully what the dynamics of the generation after the Millennials will be. Having been raised in the shadow of 9-11, it is possible that "Gen Z" will be more traditionally conservative in its values. The question is whether it will equate those values with Christianity. Conservatism without Christ is truly scary indeed. Ask the Germans.

6. What are we to do? We must be true to Christ. The way we share the good news may change. It always has. Perhaps we should not try to take over the world so much and let God deal with the world (1 Cor. 5:12-13). The Millennial concern for others is Christian to the core. Maybe if we focused on being "for" others and less "against" things, our witness might begin to heal.

Of course we also have to be true to what we believe Christ requires of us. We should be aware, however, that there is likely to be not a little American culture in what we think is the core. Dialog with Christians who are full of faith but not like us is the surest way to see where we have let cultural traditions creep into our kingdom core.

A large part of evangelicalism for the last hundred years has been characterized by protectionism against forces of the modern world that we did not know how to handle. There are Christians who have faith and yet have not abandoned dialog with science and scholarship. Twenty years ago Mark Noll wrote of the "scandal of the evangelical mind." He meant the tendency of many evangelicals to oppose education and hard hitting scholarly thinking.

Many of us are ready to go. The evangelical movement as we have known it may die. But the true church will go on. Revival will come. But we may not like it or recognize it. Indeed, many will no doubt think it is of the Devil.

Next Sunday: Culture 11: Webber and the "Younger Evangelicals"

The Calling of a Minister
The Person of a Pastor
Contexts of Ministry
American Church History Context

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