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January 8, 2005
Column #1,219

                        Why Have Unchurched Americans Doubled?
                        
      The number of unchurched Americans has nearly doubled since 1991 according to Pollster George Barna. During a time that the U.S. population edged up 15%, the number of adults who do not attend church jumped from 39 million to 75 million.

     Barna defined the unchurched as those who have not attended church in the last six months, other than for Christmas or Easter, or for special events like a wedding or a funeral. Their numbers have increased from 21% of the population in 1991 to 34% today.

     Who are the unchurched? 

     They are more likely to be male, younger than average adults (age 38 vs. 43), and are more likely to have never married. While only a quarter of adults are never-married singles, nearly two-fifths of the unchurched meet that definition (37 percent).

     They are also attracted to the nation's coasts. While only 42 percent of Americans live in the Northeast or West, 51 percent of the unchurched are clustered there, in the Blue States.

     Author and researcher George Barna identified three unique behavioral patterns of unchurched Americans:

     1.  They are "somewhat isolated from the mainstream activities of the society. They see themselves as outsiders." Fewer are registered to vote, donate to non-profit organizations or participate as volunteers.

     2.  They are less likely to describe themselves as "generous," "friendly" or "deeply spiritual" and more likely to be atheists or agnostics.

     3.   The unchurched are more independent. Few joined a political party. They are not only less likely to marry, but to have children if they do marry.

     Why have the unchurched doubled in a decade?

     First, Mainline Protestant denominations are in absolute decline and were among the largest denominations in America. Since 1965, the United Methodist Church fell from 11 million to 8.2 million, The Episcopal Church has lost a third of its members, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shrunk from 4.3 million to 2.6 million.

     Each of these denominations has been ravaged for decades by the debate over whether to ordain homosexuals. Moderate and conservative Methodists and Presbyterians have won the battle at their national conventions, but not without losing millions of members, weary of the struggle. Liberals have won in the Episcopal Church and even ordained a practicing homosexual as a bishop. But the church could split in half this year.

     Eddie Gibbs, Professor of Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, the world's largest seminary, comments, "There is a growing disillusionment with institutionalized religion. If you are under 35, you are reacting to the hierarchy, control and male domination. There is a group hungry for authentic relationships, inclusivity and open spiritual inquiry."

     By contrast, conservative evangelical denominations have grown steadily. Each has a conscious plan to evangelize the lost. Since 1965 Assemblies of God quadruped from 572,000 to 2,686,000 and The Church of the Nazarene tripled from 194,000 to 639,000.

     The Southern Baptist Convention grew from 10.7 million to 16.2 million. However, its numbers are inflated by 5.1 million so-called "non-resident members."

     Who are they?  "The FBI could not find them," quips Bob Reccord, President of the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, who oversees 5,100 Baptist missionaries.

     Among Southern Baptists, most churches have plateaued in size or are losing members. Only 11 percent are growing. There were 429,000 baptisms in Southern Baptist churches in 1980 but only 377,000 in 2003. Why?

     "Disobedient Christians," harumphed Prof. Malcolm Yarnell, Director of Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. "Evangelistic fervor is now diminishing. We are told by Christ to share the Gospel and are not doing it."

     Dr. Bob Reccord, whose missionaries are working in such tough places as Manhattan and Chicago to build churches and win lost souls, says: "I think we have settled in much of the church world for a religion of comfort and convenience rather than a relationship of character and conviction."

     "We have lapsed into a fortress driven strategy, which says, `We'd love to have you as part of our church. Our doors are open. Come on in.' But when God called people to him, he did not call them to just come and gather.  He called them to scatter. They understood that their most significant mission was not while they were together, but when they scattered."

     Acts of the Apostles records explosive church growth in Jerusalem. "But it started to enjoy its own success and by Acts 8, God allowed persecution to come into the church. The Apostles stayed at the nerve center of Jerusalem, but other believers were scattered. That was the turning point for the Gospel to be taken to the world," asserted Reccord.

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