America may still be a nation “under God,” but more Americans than ever before are finding their religion outside of church. And for the first time in the country’s history, Protestants have fallen below 50 percent of the population.
Those are several of the headlines from a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life. It’s based on dozens of surveys attracting tens of thousands of responses.
A key finding: While most Americans still consider themselves spiritual, a rapidly growing number no longer affiliate with a church. Today, 46 million Americans fall into the category now commonly called “nones.” Many of them are under 30 and politically moderate to liberal. In 2007, they made up 15 percent of the population. Now it’s 20 percent and growing.
Much of the increase has come from white former Protestants. Pew says the number of U.S. Protestant adults has fallen to 48 percent of the population compared with 53 percent in 2007.
The drop, predicted for years, follows several anomalies. Neither the Supreme Court nor the current Republican presidential ticket has a Protestant on it.
The growth in unaffiliated Americans spans gender, income and education. The largest jump has been among whites: 20 percent now say they have no religion.
Those who practice their religion outside a spiritual community are missing out on a larger point, says Tom Currie, dean of Union Presbyterian Seminary.
“The great temptation of American life is to want a relationship with Jesus that does not implicate me in the lives of others or the community,” he says. “That is not what Jesus is calling us to do. I believe that following Jesus Christ is impossible without a deep communion with other people.”
The Rev. Kate Murphy, pastor of The Grove Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, said too many churches have become “religious institutions” that have lost their commitment to evangelistic change.
“I think the church is dying to the extent that we’ve lost our call to revolution,” she said. “And if dying helps us recover our true identity, then it is a gift from God.”
Murphy said her small congregation is growing. So is the much larger Myers Park United Methodist Church, the Rev. James Howell says.
But Howell says his congregation’s relationship with church is changing. He bases it on attendance on “down Sundays” that follow Christmas, Thanksgiving and other major holidays. Once the drop-off was 10 to 15 percent, he says. Now it can be as high as 60 to 70 percent. Church, he says, has become “purely optional.”
Southerners, according to the study, still go to church more than other Americans. Charlotte, a so-called “city of churches,” is home to several fast-growing Protestant congregations, including Elevation and Forest Hill churches.
David Chadwick, pastor at nondenominational Forest Hill, said the growing number of “unaffiliateds” might be fed by everything from the country’s iconic individualism to pervasive and isolating computers and smartphones. Regardless of the causes, he says churches face more skepticism today than ever before.
“We hear the questions all the time. ‘Where were you during the civil rights movement? Where were you during the environmental movement? Where were you on any number of huge concerns?’ The church unfortunately remained eerily silent.”
Today, he says, “generosity and giving your life away to others is the new evangelism. People must see our lives filled with Christ’s love before they listen to a word we say.”
The deepening break between Americans and their churches is not only a Protestant concern. This week in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI has convened a three-week synod of bishops from around the world aimed at bringing back Catholics, including Americans, who have left the church.
Power, money, rules
The Pew Study cites several possible reasons Americans are turning away from churches. Some 70 percent of the “nones” say churches are too concerned with power, money and rules, and too involved in politics.
Not surprising, the unaffiliated are younger, politically liberal and supportive of such cultural hot buttons as same-sex marriage.
More growth in “nones” is expected. One-third of adults under age 30 have no religious affiliation, compared with 9 percent of people 65 and older.
Pew researchers wrote that “young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives,” and aren’t expected to become more religiously active as they age.
Recruit the young
Chadwick says all churches must be willing to change to keep or recruit the young.
“Traditional orthodoxy and formal services are not going to appeal to vast numbers of the young,” he says. “How do we change our form without changing our message?”
Murphy, The Grove’s pastor, says Protestant churches must return to their reformist roots to stay relevant.
“People are not interested anymore in building up religious institutions, and that’s great,” she says. “I think people remain very interested in God and people see ‘the holy’ in their lives.
“They are looking for a community to drive them deeper into that holiness.”