More U.S. adults than ever now identify themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” according to Pew Research Center.

Reporting the Findings

The findings, released October 9, 2012, report that this group has grown over the last 5 years from 15% to just under 20%. Dubbed the “nones,” this growing demographic is not only unchurched but doesn’t even identify with any particular religion. “In 2007 60% of those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition.” In 2010, it’s 50%— “a 10-point drop in five years.” And while whole ministries were geared toward “seekers” among the Boomer generation, 88% of the religiously unaffiliated now say they’re not even looking.

“Three-fourths of unaffiliated adults were raised with some affiliation (74%).” However, as affiliation falls, more Americans emerge with little or no past encounter with the church at all. One-third of adults under 30 self-identify as “religiously unaffiliated” or “nones,” compared with one-fifth more generally.

In spite of their lack of religious identification, two-thirds of the unaffiliated say they believe in God. “More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as ‘spiritual but not ‘religious’ (37%) and 1 in 5 say that they pray every day.” Their view of religious organizations seems somewhat contradictory. On one hand, there is the usual complaint that such institutions “are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.” On the other hand, “most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.”

For decades now evangelicals have celebrated growth while pointing out the precipitous decline of mainline Protestantism. Yet according to this study, “The decline is concentrated among white Protestants, both evangelical and mainline.”

Interpreting the Findings

Sociologists of religion have been debating the “secularization thesis” for at least a century. According to this theory, the process of modernization (the triumph of technology, calculative reason, routinization of behaviors, material prosperity and bureaucratization) gradually edges out religion. As the realm of the sacred shrinks and pragmatic—purely “this-worldly”—routines prevail, people look less and less to supernatural explanations. For example, agricultural communities in which annual harvest festivals culminated in a thanksgiving service at the parish church found it harder to know quite what to do at such a service when nearly everybody in the parish now buys its produce at the supermarket.

We interviewed a widely recognized sociologist who defends the secularization thesis from recent challenges. We’ll run that interview in the next post.

The secularization thesis may be briefly summarized: It explains why, in modern societies, we can expect the children to be less religious than their parents.

According to its proponents, religion becomes more privatized—especially without the reinforcement of widely shared cultural practices (such as the rhythm of holy days, festivals, and Sunday observances) and public policy (such as state support for a particular church, anti-blasphemy laws, and religious instruction in schools).

Privatization leads to pluralization, especially as new immigrants arrive with varied religious backgrounds. Religious pluralism, of course, is a fact—especially in Europe and North America. Religious freedom is a right. However, these two facets of pluralism are often confused in people’s minds with the idea that all religious paths are equally true.

This leads typically to the relativization of truth claims, as those practicing a particular religion are reluctant to defend their beliefs as true for everybody and increasingly commend their private commitments merely as personally useful and meaningful.

At last, religion is reduced to a form of personal therapy, as objective claims are psychologized into subjective experience. “God” becomes equivalent to “source of inner empowerment” and the Bible’s historical plot-line of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation is turned into an individualistic and inner striving, from an autonomous selfhood to dysfunction to recovery and self-enlightenment.

According to this story, we came from nowhere and are going nowhere but in between we can make something of ourselves. To the extent that we see the basic trajectory of this process in evangelical circles today as well, we should not be surprised to discover in the latest report that the sharpest rise among the “nones” is among evangelical as well as mainline Protestants. Accommodating ourselves to the culture of modernity, we can no longer use the old growth-versus-decline argument as an anti-mainline polemic.

Resisting the Powers and Principalities

It’s not only explicit ideas that determine the course of secularization, but cultural practices that assume the validity of a completely immanent (naturalistic) interpretation of reality. Conversely, it is not merely the recovery of sound doctrine that will fortify our churches and families—and our own lives, but the routines that presuppose a different reality, in which we are God’s creatures, fallen in sin, and redeemed by Christ awaiting his return in glory to restore all things.

These routines center on the public ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline in doctrine and life—as Jesus instituted for making disciples in his Great Commission. They entail mutual submission and service in Christ’s body. Our public gatherings announce that in Christ and by his Spirit, the age to come has broken into this present age that is fading. We aren’t just consumers in a mall of endless choice and felt needs that the culture of marketing has created in our hearts, but recipients of a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Our families are not the products of contracts, but of covenants—and the most formative influence in passing the faith down from generation to generation. As we eat our daily bread in gratitude, our children grow up seeing that we also depend on our Triune God and his word, seeking him in prayer, and that they are part of this circle of forgiven sinners who look to God’s gracious provision and salvation. They come to learn by experience that in all of our half-hearted ways, we are seeking to “read” the world with God’s spectacles, to see our neighbors in the transcendent light of God’s greater love and purposes.

We immerse ourselves in Scripture not simply to consume yet another product or program, but to find our story in Christ’s. Our callings are not just jobs, but are anchored in a transcendent purpose. We were made for something great. Lost in sin and death, we were reconciled by God by his gift of his Son and are united Christ by his Spirit. Telling that story, teaching its doctrines, baptized into Christ’s body and receiving Christ again and again in his Supper, worshipping with God’s people in confession, praise, and thanksgiving, we are being formed by the Spirit into citizens of the new creation rather than prisoners of trivial pursuits.

Maybe this latest study can jolt us out of going further and further down that path of captivity to a culture of the “nowhere man, making all his plans for nobody”—and reach out to unbelieving family and friends with the greatest story ever told along with tangible gifts of love and service that commend it. Hopefully it will give us pause to wonder how much our churches, families and lives have become captive to our culture’s narcissistic demand for a constant state of extraordinary excitement, making it increasingly difficult to embrace patiently and lovingly the ordinary ministry of the church and the daily routines of family, friendship, and sociality that yield an abundant harvest over the long haul. Perhaps the report will help make us reconsider our message, mission and strategies and help us discover renewed confidence in the power of the gospel to create, sustain, and expand Christ’s church.

In any case, these findings shouldn’t lead us to despair, because it is still as true as it ever was that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Therefore, let us keep the feast!


Note: Dr. Horton was asked about this study by Christianity Today along with some other Christian leaders. Read that article here: New Report: Non-Religious Grow, Protestants Wither (to below 50%)