November 29, 2012
How To Reach The Religiously
By Mike McManus
Americans are growing religiously
unaffiliated at a rapid pace, rising from 15% to nearly 20% in
the last five years, according to a major study by the Pew
Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Curiously, two-thirds of the religiously unaffiliated assert
they believe in God and three-fifths feel a deep connection with
nature and the earth. Another third say they are “spiritual” but
Yet nine out of ten are not looking for a church that would be
right for them.
Their perception is that churches are too concerned with money
and power, focused on rules and overly involved in politics.
Interestingly, nearly half of religiously active Americans agree
with those criticisms.
For the first time, less than half of Americans call themselves
Protestants. In 2007, 53% identified themselves as Protestant,
but only 48% did so in 2012.
In the past, declines were concentrated among white mainline
Protestants, while white evangelicals were growing. Now both are
in decline. Black Protestants remain unchanged.
The Catholic share of the population has held steady at 22% of
the population, with significant additional numbers of Hispanics
offsetting fewer young people in church.
What’s rising rapidly are what demographers call the “nones,”
people with no religious affiliation. Why?
Pew cites “generational replacement,” the substituting of an
older, religiously active generation with a less interested
young generation. A third of those aged 18-22 are unaffiliated
vs. only 9% of the “Silent Generation,” born before 1945.
However, there has also been a significant increase in the
unaffiliated among Baby Boomers, rising from 12% in 2007 to 15%
and among Generation Xers, increasing from 18% to 21%.
By another measure, a similar trend can be seen in church
attendance which has fallen. In 2003, a quarter of all Americans
said they seldom or never attended services, which grew by 4
points to 29% by 2012.
In 1987, 88% of Americans said they never doubt the existence of
God. By 2012, that figure was down to 80%.
The growth of the unaffiliated has been across a wide variety of
demographic groups – among both men and women, college graduates
and those without a college degree, plus among those earning
more than $75,000 and less than $30,000, and in all parts of the
The unaffiliated “are not uniformly hostile” toward religious
institutions. Three-quarters acknowledge that churches bring
people together, strengthen community bonds and play an
important role in helping the poor and needy.
However, only half of the religiously inactive believe that
religious institutions “protect and strengthen morality,” while
eight in ten of the religiously active are convinced of that
role by churches.
America remains vastly more religious than other advanced
industrial democracies. Three in five Americans say religion is
“very important” in their lives – more than triple the British
(17%) or French (13%) who feel similarly.
Yet the erosion of believers should be a cause of concern for
all churches. What can be done?
One of the most successful pastors in America is Rick Warren. He
built Saddleback Church in Orange County, California from a
handful meeting for a weekly Bible study in 1980 into a church
that gathers 20,000 each week, America’s eighth largest church.
From the very beginning he sought out the unchurched. He quotes
Jesus: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I
have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Consequently, he went door to door talking to people. He asked
what their most pressing needs were. “People don’t care how much
we know until they know how much we care,” he wrote in his
landmark book, “The Purpose-Driven Church.”
Prior to his first Sunday service on Easter, he and his 15 early
followers wrote 15,000 letters and mailed them 10 days before
Easter, hoping that 1 percent might respond, 150 people. On Palm
Sunday, he practiced his service at the local high school. To
his delight, 60 showed up for the dress rehearsal and 205 on
He shared “The Saddleback Vision” in his first sermon, as “the
dream of a place where the hurting, the depressed, the
frustrated and the confused can find love, acceptance, help,
hope, forgiveness, guidance and encouragement.
“It is the dream of welcoming 20,000 members into the fellowship
of our church family – loving, learning, laughing, and living in
harmony together. It is the dream of equipping every believer
for a significant ministry by helping them discover the gifts
and talents God gave them.”
There’s hope. The unchurched can be reached.
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