Voices

Change-seekers

Survey reveals a nation on the spiritual hunt

Issue: "Shattered dreams," April 5, 2008

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has released a major study of America's religious makeup. The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (available online at religions.pewforum.org/reports) shows a nation of people changing their religion, with churches simultaneously gaining new members but losing old ones, and with the fastest-growing religious group being the "unaffiliated."

Currently, 51 percent of Americans are Protestants-down from 60 percent to 65 percent in the 1970s. Of these, 26 percent of Americans are members of evangelical churches; 18 percent belong to mainline Protestant churches; and 7 percent belong to historic black churches.

Roman Catholics make up 24 percent of the population. The Eastern Orthodox make up 0.6 percent. In addition to "other Christian" groups (0.3 percent), the survey throws Jehovah's Witnesses (0.7 percent) and Mormons (1.7 percent) into the Christian camp, which thus includes 78.4 percent of all Americans.

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Other world religions claim the adherence of only 4.7 percent of Americans. These include Jews (1.7 percent), Buddhists (0.7 percent), Muslims (0.6 percent), and Hindus (0.4 percent). The survey includes in this breakdown the 0.4 percent who follow New Age religions (the same percentage as Hindus and the Presbyterian Church in America), and other non-Christian sects, such as Unitarians (0.7 percent).

Christianity's major competitor is thus not other religions but no religion. The "unaffiliated" comprise 16 percent of all Americans-roughly the same percentage that belong to mainline Protestant denominations and more than double the number of unaffiliated in the 1980s. And the unaffiliated are growing the fastest, taking members from virtually all other religious groupings, including evangelicals.

Perhaps the study's biggest finding is the extent to which Americans change their religious affiliations. Over 28 percent have changed from the religion in which they were brought up-and 44 percent have left the church of their childhood.

If America has become "post-denominational," what is the cause and effect? Do people lack denominational loyalty because they no longer care about theological distinctives? Or is it because different denominations are increasingly indistinguishable?

Such quantifiable studies also tend to miss the spiritual issues. Where in the data charts can we find genuine conversions to Christ? Which changes of affiliation come from superficial religious consumerism and which come from the search for a deeper spiritual life? How much of this religious change comes from unbelief and how much from the Holy Spirit?

American Christians have much to learn from the Pew survey. Despite the church growth movement and the proliferation of megachurches, evangelical Christianity is losing ground. Growing churches often have high turnover. The issue is not only how to gain new members but how to keep the ones churches already have. Churches especially need to do more to keep their children when they grow up-not only in the church but in the Christian faith. Honestly facing the problem might bring American Christianity to a spiritual maturity that could reverse the slide.

Comments? Email Ed Veith at gveith@worldmag.com

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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