The last thing you need is one more person spouting hot air about all of this “Christianity in decline” business, and yet here I am… mostly because I have been trying to figure out why I’m so frustrated about all of this. Well, specifically, the way some people are talking about the results. I’ll keep it to 4 things.
1. Polls are not ever the whole story.
I admit, I’m not a data person, so this is probably biased. But I think we could use some perspective before we go any further. A poll of 35,000 people is helpful, but it is not the whole story. This data is not nothing, but PEOPLE, it’s not everything. How many millions of people weren’t represented in this? We can guess that they might fall into these trends, but also…they might not. I absolutely think we should pay attention to the data. I don’t think we should set our clocks by it.
Also, polls like this are not necessarily good indicators of how people actually hold belief, which is more nuanced than a poll is able (or interested) to determine. Take me. I’m not sure what box I would have checked (had they asked). Am I Protestant? I guess, but a good chunk of my theology isn’t. But what kind of Protestant? Am I mainline? No. Am I evangelical? Absolutely not. And I’m not part of a historically black Protestant tradition either. Would they throw an unfinished ballot out of their survey? Because I don’t know what boxes I could have picked with any honesty.
But- and this is important- that doesn’t mean I don’t have a faith tradition, or further, that I don’t have FAITH. And it doesn’t mean I’m not committed to my church, or that I’m de-prioritizing my faith just because I don’t make it every week. It’s just…complicated.
I feel this same sense of nowhere-land when asked to check ethnicity and race boxes. Let me tell you: there isn’t a box for “my dad is a WASP and my mom is Lebanese.” I end up begrudgingly calling myself a catch-all Caucasian, but it always feels like a little lie, like the culture and ethnic identity that formed me deeply is forced to get swallowed up in an ocean of white-ness just because the ballot doesn’t have room for nuance. Just because a survey doesn’t have a box for me doesn’t mean I don’t have a strong ethnic identity. And just because the Pew Research poll hasn’t found a way to categorize my faith identity doesn’t mean I don’t live by mine. Maybe some people are just tired of checking the box that doesn’t tell the story in an honest way. I know I am.
2. This poll shows a shift, not a conclusion.
It’s my opinion that trying to ascertain this “decline” at this particular moment in time is like talking with college juniors about their career plans. They are headed in a direction, but they are also in a phase of growth that isn’t yet finished, and could change their direction significantly. What I mean is, American Christians have declared their major, so to speak, but the word is still out on whether they will make their career out of it. And even if they do, it’s too early to say if they will be apathetic to faith or religion forever.
Here is what I feel comfortable saying for sure: People are questioning their faith. Some of those questions are making them leave their faith traditions. I do not believe that means necessarily that they won’t find their way into new ones, or find a new way back into their old one, with some caveats and altered paradigms. And heaven forbid we admit that it might be healthy to leave a faith tradition under certain circumstances.
For the record, I think this shift is a good thing. I think there is much to be questioned about American Christianity, and the faith of our future will be the better for their doing so. This will be unpopular to say, but there are some popular beliefs and practices that are untenable, and though it may cause some crises of faith for a time, they need to go. I would go so far as to say I think the Spirit might be at work here.
3. The “nones” are not soulless creatures.
It needs to be said that people who have left religion or have never belonged to one are not by default, in my humble opinion, resigned to some distant country of soulless apathy and immorality. In fact, I’d argue that nones have often given far more thought to their own spirituality and beliefs than many professing people of faith. Last week I was talking with a young adult who was raised Muslim but has become an atheist. Do you know what that change of belief cost him? Changing your beliefs, or leaving them altogether, is not the easy way out. It is usually painful and difficult and complicates relationships everywhere and it’s done only because you feel it so deeply you know it would be actually worse to stay, which is saying something.
Please don’t call these “nones” apathetic, or lazy, or (oh, I am so very tired of this one) selfish. Those assumptions are unfair and, from someone who spends a decent amount of time in conversation with them, untrue. A lot of people are dis-identifying with their faith tradition because they are trying to be faithful to what they know and have experienced. You know, the same reason you choose to keep identifying with yours. There’s much to be discussed (and boy is it) about what the Church is doing to make faith so easy to leave, and I am ALL for having those discussions. (Like I said, I think much of this process is a theological house-cleaning of sorts, and these questions should be welcomed as perhaps divine grace in the long run). But we will not get anywhere healthy by throwing a rising percentage of thoughtfully critical people under the bus just because they decided to get off at the last stop. Let them walk a while. Let them ask their questions. LISTEN TO THEM. Maybe you can even learn from them. But definitely don’t write them off. That’s lazy.
4. This is, like, the Church’s zillionth wake-up call.
If I were artistically talented, I would insert a comic here about a third-rate prophet who is now over the hill and who has been holding up signs about church decline so long his knuckles are now, in the next to last comic box, gnarled in a permanent fist. He sighs, puts his damn sign down, and tries to find some peace and quiet. In the final box, the third-rate arthritic prophet is bombarded by a huge crowd filled with camera crews and microphones held by news pundits and journalists. The prophet just looks at them and laughs and says, “I’m done talking. You can refer to my previous papers, declarations, long-form journalistic pieces, and rants. Good luck to you.”
Guys, this data has been a foregone conclusion for a long time. If I can be personal and honest for a minute, I think I’ve just hit the point of being cynical about the naivete of people who are somehow shocked. If this poll has removed some of that naivete, then I’m grateful.
I say this because I want to be very clear: I’m not at all trying to tell you not to heed the data, or even worry about it to a normal degree. I just want you to have some context about what, in my opinion, the data doesn’t say but is happening on the ground to bring about these results. If people are finally going to concede that religious decline is a real thing, and not just limited to this denomination or that one, this age group or that one (how long have we said that?? forever, literally forever), I sure don’t want to see people now taking these results and creating a simplistic caricature of the landscape of American faith. That being said, please hear me: The last thing you should do is keep ignoring it. For the love of all that is good and holy, maybe this time, take our word for it. American Christianity has some problems, and they are not going away.