By Corey Minter
Many feared what the shocking results of the May 2015 Pew Research Center’s "America’s Changing Religious Landscape” confirmed. The percentage of adults in America who identify as Christian dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Additionally, this study of 35,000 Americans showed the percentage of those who claim no religion (affectionately nicknamed “The Nones”) leaped from 16.1% to 22.8%.
The seven-point loss of those in the church hurt, but the six-point increase of “The Nones” sent some Christians into a frenzy. “The Rise of the Nones” and other such titles—more suited for a Roman Catholic Sci-Fi movie than ministry-related articles—ruled the headlines. While I never ran across an article or sermon titled, “The End of Christianity as We Know It,” it seemed to sum up what a lot of people were thinking.
Since then, Christians have responded with books, articles, and conferences. Questions like: “Where has the Church gone wrong?” “How can we stem the tide of people leaving the Church?” and “What can I do to keep my kids from becoming Nones?” are asked more today than ever before.
I have benefited personally from some of the resources spawned as a result of the data. They offer keen insight into our culture and churches. However, I have never appreciated the “sky is falling” philosophy prevalent among many Christians who act as though we are living in A Brave New World of evangelism. America, as many have known it, may be changing; but sincere “Take up your cross and follow Me” Christianity has never been in the majority. If it had, Jesus spoke incorrectly when He said of eternal life, “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:14).
In one of his articles concerning the aforementioned Pew Research study, interim pastor of Moody Bible Church in Chicago, Ed Stetzer wrote, “Christianity is not dying; nominal Christianity is.” Stetzer, who has a background as a research director, is faithful to remind us that many have called themselves Christian over the last few centuries merely because it was an accepted, even popular, religion. As Christianity’s popularity wanes, so will the number of those who casually identify as Christian.
Still, the question remains, “How do we (the Church) engage with the Nones?” While I do not consider myself an authority on any matter, especially evangelism, I suggest we adapt a few principles to help us navigate the changing landscape.
While I truly grieve over those who have walked away from the faith, I refuse to mourn the statistics and percentage points lost. I believe this may give new opportunities for genuine believers who long to share their faith. The mask of faux faith is being peeled away, allowing us to engage the culture in a more honest and real way.
Nominal Christianity has never been good for anyone. It creates a dangerous subculture of cheap grace. It distracts churches with record numbers. It has lulled many church attenders into Hell. If Stetzer and others like him are right in their analyses of this research, we should celebrate authentic faith and “double-down” on our mission to reach the world for Christ.
Speak to the person, not the statistic.
Facts, figures, statistics, and trends are invaluable tools to aid in modern ministry. A church with accurate, up-to-date records usually has its finger on the pulse of the culture within its community. Records and facts help us plan events and “Big Days.” They aid in building budgets and help focus our church’s giving potential to other ministries. Records and research studies are excellent tools, but they should never become more than that.
I fear the modern Church puts too much stock in statistics. When presented with numbers, we tend to look for a wholesale, one-size-fits-all strategy to reach a certain demographic. I am convinced Christ did not work that way, nor has He designed His Church to operate in that manner.
I understand that for statistical research to be accomplished, people must be categorized, sub-categorized, and given titles within each subset. However, no one likes to be a number. Nobody enjoys fitting a stereotype, especially in the culture of individualism long fostered in America.
For example, during a recent conversation with several older pastoral friends, the topic of the apparent differences among the generations—Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials—was brought up. Certainly, no one in the dialogue meant any disrespect to a particular person or generation, but as statistics were referenced and generalizations made about my own Millennial generation, I heard my old, inner junior high, squeaky voice speak up, “Don’t label me!”
Ironically, the one thing the Nones have in common is they choose no label or affiliation. They do not want to be categorized. They represent a mixed bag of atheists, agnostics, spiritualists, and a thousand other systems of thought and belief. Each has a story—a reason for being unaffiliated with a religion. Perhaps she has never experienced a conversation with a genuine believer where the gospel was presented as reasonable. Maybe he deeply struggles with rectifying faith and science. Some may have been hurt deeply by a religious person and so reject all religious thought and practice. Many suffer from their own self-righteousness, thinking they do not need faith.
But here is the beauty: the gospel speaks to them all, individually. The woman at the well found the Water she did not know she had been seeking all those years. Nicodemus got hung up on the science of being “born again,” but Jesus walked him through it. The Philippian fortune teller mocked the mission of Paul and Silas until she learned they cared enough to confront her. The rich, young ruler came to
Jesus filled with his own righteousness, but he left knowing his life would lead him to becoming a poor, old nobody unless he confessed Christ. To each individual, Jesus and His followers offered a sincere, tailor-made plea to accept the gospel.
One of the worst mistakes we can make in sharing our faith is to speak to someone through our own preconceived idea of his situation. Though someone may be categorized as a None, it is still possible she might also be a seeker, earnestly looking for the Answer.
Reaffirm your call to the Great Commission.
Reports on the changing religious landscape of our country should revive believers’ calling to be “fishers of men.” With all of our tactics and strategies, programs and classes on evangelism, nothing will ever compare to one person simply sharing his heart and faith with another.
Second Kings 6 and 7 chronicles the account of Israel’s most dire situation. Syria had besieged the walls of Samaria, and God’s people were starving. When no one could afford even the smallest morsel of food, they turned to cannibalism. As bad as it was inside the city, the leper commune just outside the gates suffered even more. Four lepers decided to surrender to the Syrians in hopes they would gain mercy. They trekked to the outskirts of the Syrian camp, and to their surprise, they found the outpost abandoned yet intact.
They entered one tent after the other eating their fill, changing into new clothes, and hiding some of the gold for later. After the euphoria died down, they said to each other, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, and we remain silent.” They returned to Samaria and reported their findings to the gatekeeper, who told the king, which resulted in all of Samaria eating their fill the next day.
The lepers in 2 Kings lived out one of my favorite anonymous quotes about sharing our faith with others. “Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where he found the bread.”
The greatest threat to the church is not the changing landscape of our nation, but our own silence. Perhaps we feel intimidated by statistics or inadequate in knowing how to engage our culture, but remaining silent while the world starves spiritually is not an option. Whether dealing with Nones or nominal Christians, skeptics or spiritualists, objective thinkers or postmodernists, I hope we do not fall into the trap of talking so much about evangelism that we forget to share our faith.
About the Writer: Corey Minter became lead pastor of New Hope FWB Church in Joelton, Tennessee, in 2014. He is a graduate of
Gateway FWB College in his hometown of Virginia Beach, Virginia. He and his wife Rachel have two daughters, Claire and Naomi.
Allan Cooperman, Director of Religion Research. America’s Changing Religious Landscape: Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow.