Alarm bells are clanging. They say churches are dying. The western world is rejecting God. The fabric of society is unraveling.
Polls show those choosing no religious affiliation, called “nones” (not to be confused with “nuns”) outnumber Catholics and evangelicals. There’s been a 266% increase in those who claim no organized religion since 1991.
Church-flight is a bipartisan phenomenon. Liberals are leaving the church, but Republicans avoid the pews in larger numbers than they’d like to admit. Public Religion Research Institute data show the numbers of white Republican “nones” tripled in the last 30 years.
Truthfully, church attendance is a poor indicator of whether a church, much less a civilization, is in decline. Dwindling numbers don’t support the premise that the country is lurching toward the abyss. Honestly, it is not necessarily bad news for the future of the church.
It means some are redefining what it means to be religious. They watch in disgust as many evangelical Christians redefine what it means for them to be “religious” by supplanting the Sermon on the Mount with Trumpianity.
While Trump is accused of countless nonconsensual assaults on women, it’s his consensual assault on the Bride of Christ that has many leaving the church. Peter Wehner of the Atlantic quotes one conservative Christian calling this “a moral freak show,” adding that because of the evangelical alignment with Trump, “We’re losing an entire generation. It’s one of the worst things to happen to the church.”
If the church dies, it will be by suicide, not homicide.
Those who choose “none of the above,” witness faux Christians join the amoral Trump in condemning LGBTQ friends, immigrants and science. They are not rejecting God. They are rejecting that church. There is a difference.
Many of those no longer attending church will tell you, “I didn’t leave the church. The church left me.” Some feel they were rejected; for others, it was an issue of relevancy. They aren’t looking for what many churches offer.
In his book “Unbelievable,” Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong describes a conversation with his daughter, a Ph.D. scholar from Stanford. “Dad,” she said, “the questions the church is trying to answer, we don’t even ask anymore.”
While some churches spend valuable pulpit time explaining the Trinity, the Incarnation or atonement theology, many of the “nones” are spending quality time with their children and spouses, volunteering at homeless shelters, helping domestic violence victims, working with addicts, contributing money and time to good causes or marching for justice. Their “God moments” may come watching their children’s Little League team play on Sunday morning or sitting around the campfire at the foot of one of the Creator’s most beautiful natural settings.
They believe in science, social justice and the relevancy of God in contemporary issues. What I hear from those fleeing religion is concern about matters most churches don’t address; among them homelessness, hunger, health care, never-ending wars, gun violence and a growing alarm over climate change.
Poll the pastors. You’ll find many fearful of preaching about controversial issues, having no interest in them, or believe preaching justice is an unwarranted interference with a government they conveniently claim was ordained by God when that government serves their agenda. That approach is a turnoff for millennials and others.
I know many of these “nones” to be thoughtful people of integrity and generosity, with loving hearts and intellectual honesty, devoted to family. They accept people the culture rejects and are a part of charitable and social justice work.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found atheists, agnostics and “nones” more compassionate to the poor than many Christians. They think a person’s circumstances and public policies are to blame for impoverished lives, while uncompassionate Christians blame the poor.
If Christianity survives its love affair with Trump, the church of the future won’t be a building. The church of the future will do what many of the “nones” are doing today. Those whom organized religion lost will find themselves the cornerstone of tomorrow’s faith communities.