Where is Everyone Going?
If you pay even the slightest attention to the trends in the American church you have probably heard that the situation is dire; our faith is in mortal jeopardy. The statistics are chilling. Or are they?
Well, it is true that, if you look at the broad categories of faith in America, all religious traditions are down. Evangelicals have joined mainline Protestants, Catholics and that amorphous category “Other” in declining numbers. The only category that has seen an increase is the “Nones,” those with no religious affiliation. It would seem that the trend is clear.
But, while it is true that there is a rise in those with no religious affiliation this overall trend disguises what I think is the real problem. It turns out that only a small percentage of those leaving one of the major faith traditions, far less than half of them, are actually dropping all religious affiliation. The majority of them are going to different faith traditions.
So, with Evangelicals for instance, while some are becoming Nones many more are moving to Catholic, Mainstream Protestant or other churches. The trend is true in each of the other traditions too. In some cases, between Catholics and Evangelicals for instance, there is an almost equal swap. Even the Nones are not always an end-of-the-road category. A certain percentage of them migrate to one or another faith tradition, slowing down the growth of that category.
I can’t help but think that, while Christians are fretting and atheists are gloating about the overall trend, we are all missing the main point. I suspect that most of the migration is caused not by an abandonment of God, but by people feeling disappointment with their own churches.
Is it possible people are really looking for an authentic relationshipwith God and feeling that they aren’t finding it at their current church? Perhaps even those that end up with no affiliation do so more from discouragement than assuming that God is not there?
There are all kinds of efforts to stem the tide out outflow in the various denominations. Recently I’ve seen a lot of commentary among Southern Baptists that, to stem their own decline, they need to focus more passionately on evangelism. Seriously? A denomination that is obsessed with witnessing as the core mission of the church feels they are declining because they don’t do it enough?
Maybe what we need to do, religious tradition by religious tradition, denomination by denomination, church by church and, yes, person by person, is to examine ourselves. Maybe we need to face the uncomfortable truth that the only common denominator is all our trouble is us. Maybe it is not what we are doing that is wrong, maybe it is who we are and how we show Jesus to the world.