Jack Lengyl, portrayed by Matthew McConaughey, tries to find an offense that works for Marshall University alongside assistant coach Red Dawson, played by Matthew Fox. YouTube Screen grab/Warner Bros
A Pew Research report released last week shows the changing landscape of religion in America. And for those who have been keeping track for the last decade or so, the numbers continue to stack in every conceivable way against the American church.
The most recent poll isn’t as comprehensive as Pew’s Religious Landscape studies (Here is the most recent one from 2014, presented in March 2015). Last week’s survey asked questions pertaining to religious identity and church attendance among various demographic groups.
While the growth of “nones” – those who claim no religious affiliation – continues to grow among Millennials, that descriptor has also claimed more in other demographic groups. For instance, while in 2009 regular church attenders (defined as doing so once or twice a month) outnumbered those who rarely or never attended by a 52% to 47% margin. Ten years later those figures have more than reversed, with 54% of Americans saying they go to religious services a few times or less a year and 45% saying they attend monthly. Over the last decade, ‘nones’ have gained nearly 30 million adult members in the U.S.
Furthermore, the gap among age groups who describe themselves as Christian is striking. The Silent Generation (born 1928-1945) claim 84% as Christians. Those numbers drop with Baby Boomers (78%) and Generation X (67%), yet remain as a solid majority. Only 49% of Millennials, however, say they are Christian.
There are many things to take note of from the study, and I encourage you to look through all of it. By now the news of twenty- and thirty-somethings growing further away from religion and church attendance has become, unfortunately, a familiar headline. But the report also reflects those growing numbers among all ages and demographics.
Consider this: the area of the country that has seen the biggest drop in Protestants? The South, down 11%. Also, while nones now make up a third of Democrats, their numbers are also growing among Republicans. Fewer Republicans are attending church services, too.
The report is sobering, to say the least. So, what do we do?
I was talking with a Georgia Baptist minister about this study recently and what it means for our country. It matters a great deal, we concluded, not just for churches, but in terms of culture, politics, and just how the freedom to live out one’s faith will be challenged. Whether people believe in God or not, our theology – remember, not believing is a theology – shapes our community, nation, and world. As Christians, how we live out and tell others of our salvation experience matters.
“We can no longer rely on bringing people into the church building and them getting saved by just being there, by osmosis,” my friend said. “We have to meet the woman at the well.”
Go back and read that story from John 4. Jesus broke all kinds of social norms to share the Gospel here. He spoke with a woman in public. He spoke with a Samaritan woman in public. He spoke with a Samaritan woman in public who didn’t have the best reputation.
As you know, those were all the same woman. This was relatively early in Jesus’ ministry, so there was a risk as to how he could be perceived socially – him, a religious teacher, taking that kind of chance.
In “We Are Marshall” Matthew McConaughey plays coach Jack Lengyel of Marshall University. The school and community of Huntingdon, West Virginia are shell-shocked at the loss of nearly the entire MU football team in a tragic plane crash the year before. In a scene, Lengyel is confident the Power I is the type of offense to get the Thundering Herd winning.
Only it doesn’t. This becomes painfully obvious to Lengyl and assistant coach Red Dawson (who didn’t fly back with the team to instead go on a recruiting trip. By the way, he was also a native of Valdosta.). In a moment of frustration, Lengyll erases all the Power I formations from a chalkboard and asks others in the room for suggestions, anything, they could try.
It’s important to note that the goal – winning football games – remained the same. A passion to get there, however, dictated a new resolve to find what worked.
A change in the American church and how it can do better to bring others to a relationship with Christ isn’t going to happen overnight. Furthermore, any societal change doesn’t occur minus a person-to-person engagement. In a world that wants immediate results with as little shakeup to our personal comfort as possible, we need to accept those realities.
So back to my question from earlier: What do we do?
“A lot of churches are dying because people want what they want, not what brings the Gospel to others,” said my minister friend.
I’m as guilty as anyone of wanting the result with as little of the sweat and sacrifice as possible. But really, it starts on a much smaller step.
One. Find your one and build a relationship. Figure out how you can be a blessing to them. Show and tell about your hope. Consider how God has gifted you. Use that in your community and around those who couldn’t care less about church.
Yes, America’s religious landscape is changing. But as you and I know, it’s not about religion. It’s about a relationship.