Monday, March 26, 2007

Unchurched America

We just had a great weekend with Jim Adams, the founder of The Center for Progressive Christianity, who was in the twin cities for the weekend and spoke at Open Circle on Friday night and Saturday morning. In one of his talks, Jim said that there was a common misperception about church attendance numbers relating to evangelical and mainline churches. The misperception is that evangelical churches grew in the 80's and 90's at the expense of mainline churches. It is true that mainline Christianity declined precipitously. And it is also true that some of the growth of evangelical super-churches came at the expense of the mainline, although some of it also came at the expense of smaller evangelical churches who did not or could not compete with the big show of mega-churches. But the largest decline in mainline churches came as a result of people on the religious and political left dropping out of church altogether.

This recent article on the Barna Research Group website, an evangelical outfit focused on church growth, bears this out:

A new survey released by The Barna Group, which has been tracking America’s religious behavior and beliefs since 1984, reveals that one out of every three adults (33%) is classified as unchurched - meaning they have not attended a religious service of any type during the past six months. While that figure is considerably higher than the one out of five who qualified as unchurched in the early Nineties, it is statistically unchanged since 36% were recorded as having avoided religious services in the company’s 1994 study.

Some population segments are notorious church avoiders. For instance, 47% of political liberals are unchurched, more than twice the percentage found among political conservatives (19%). African Americans were less likely to be unchurched (25%) than were whites (32%) or Hispanics (34%). Asians, however, doubled the national average: 63% were unchurched! Single adults continued a historic pattern of being more likely than married adults to stay away from religious services (37% versus 29%, respectively).

Residents of the West (42%) and Northeast (39%) remain the most church resistant, while those in the South are the least prone to avoid religious services (26%). Sexual orientation is closely related to church status, too: while about one-third of heterosexuals are unchurched (31%), half of the homosexual public (49%) met the unchurched criteria...

When these statistics are projected across the aggregate adult population, the numbers are staggering. An estimated 73 million adults are presently unchurched. When teens and children are added, the total swells to roughly 100 million Americans.

To put that figure in context, if the unchurched population of the United States were a nation of its own, that group would be the eleventh most populated nation on earth (trailing only China, India, the churched portion of the United States, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia, Japan and Mexico).

As Jim Adams said, "Churches are emptying from the left to the right." The large number of unchurched political liberals and homosexuals presents progressive churches like ours with a unique challenge. Many of these people simply don't care about church; they don't believe in God, or at least they don't believe in any traditional God concept, and they certainly don't worry about what might happen to them in an afterlife. They also believe it is perfectly possible to live a good life without going to church. And some of them, particularly homosexuals, have also been deeply wounded by rejection by Christians. Why should they go to church?

This is our challenge, to have intellectual integrity, to be unconditionally welcoming, and to find ways to reach out and entice these folks to give us a look.

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