John Ortberg: Snapshots of Religious Life
What do the recent surveys tell us about the future of faith?

by John Ortberg

Snapshot: The recently released American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) indicates that faith is going down across the board. The number of people who identify themselves as Christian has decreased by 11 percent in a generation. The single fastest-growing category when it comes to religious affiliation is "None," which grew from 8 percent to 15 percent since 1990.

The "Nones" are the single biggest group in the state of Vermont, at 34 percent of the state's population. And "None" was the only religious category to grow in all 50 states.

One of the other fastest growing categories is "Don't Know/confused." (You can supply your own mainline humor here. In fact, the "two-party system" of evangelical versus mainline Christianity that I grew up with is collapsing. In an ironic return to Reformation language, in the United States "evangelical" will soon be synonymous with "Protestant.")

Barry Kosmin, who co-authored the survey, commented that more than ever before "people are just making up their own stories of who they are. They say, ?I'm everything. I'm nothing. I believe in myself.'" He said that faith is increasingly treated as a fashion statement that serves as a vehicle for self-expression rather than a transcendent commitment which demands costly devotion.

One respondent to a version of the story in USA Today said: "None of my friends believe in God. When the subject of religion comes up around the table, we all just mock it. It's a source of ridicule." 27 percent of Americans do not even expect a religious funeral at their death. The survey doesn't indicate how many are hoping to skip death altogether.

Snapshot: In the entertainment section of The San Francisco Chronicle recently, someone asked Mick LaSalle, the movie critic, what kind of movie will never be re-made. He answered by pointing to films like Going My Way, and forties films that starred Bing Crosby as a young parish priest. Religion is simply no longer accepted as part of the national fabric, he said. The one kind of movie that is most unlikely to be re-made today is one that assumes faith as a kind of national backdrop.

Snapshot: I was talking to some young church leaders recently about how, twenty years ago, if someone wanted to look for a model of what an effective church might look like in the future, they would generally go to a place like Willow Creek or Saddleback. But these younger leaders said it was no longer apparent where they should go to see what church might look like in another twenty years.

April 27, 2009

Displaying 1–10 of 36 comments


May 01, 2009  11:00am

"Christian America needs to pray for a Joseph" Still, that person's name is well-known to all Americans - it's Jesus! Thus, the key word in your message is "pray".

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May 01, 2009  10:14am

"This Copernican conflict prevents us from moving forward by binding us to the Old Testament past and naive truths which the general population now recognizes and rejects with increasing disdain." Well,Don't be too hasty, Brother! From my Soviet Christian experience I have to tell you that we observed these "advances of science", always directed against us, the believers, for number of long, long years! There is one fantasy narrative, famously authored my Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, in which a snake claims that it measured the skies by jumping up for the whole yard! – this is the true picture of those "achievements"! He did create the heavens and the earth, Cliff! The Bible is the prophecy first of all, much greater, than endless mutually exclusive explanations of American theologians. They know some Latin, but quite often don't know the power of God at all! It's time to rediscover your supreme faith, Br. Cliff!

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April 30, 2009  1:07pm

"...'None'....I don't have any magic answers..." The word "None" inspirited this reflection. Caution: You are about to enter a foreboding zone. "And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, flat cows....The thin heads of grain swallowed up the seven healthy, full heads. Then Pharaoh woke up; it had been a dream. In the morning his mind was troubled, so he sent for all the magicians and wise men of Egypt...but [none] could interpret them for him." (Gen. 41:4, 7-8) Christian America today is like the old Egypt. The recent ominous surveys were like the Pharaoh's dream which only Joseph was able to interpret. "Since it is to you that God has made known all this, there can be [none] as intelligent and wise as you." (Gen. 41:39) Today, amid the dark cloud of biblical "famine" looming portentously in the horizon, Christian America needs to pray for a Joseph, who will build up a national storage of spiritual grain. And churches need to pray for lots of Josephs, who will feed the sheep - that are shepherd-less and scattered.

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Rob Watson

April 30, 2009  5:43am

In the UK the church has watched a huge drop in the number of people coming and many churches have died. For some that is a disaster, but for many others it has given rise to a wonderful opportunity to reconnect churches to the community. From my perspective we have just started to see a rise in Christian belief in the UK (early days and not universally agreed). Take heart US it is a wonderful chance for mission!

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Joe Settle

April 29, 2009  9:04pm

A couple of years ago I was flipping through the channels on a slow Saturday afternoon and watched an interview of the military historian, John Keegan, by Brian Lamb. Lamb asked Keegan why he admired military men and women so much and Keegan replied that in addition to being trained to respect honor and duty, a military man must also at some point make the decision that he may be called on to die for his country or his comrades. Lamb asked how did a military man differ from a politician and Keegan replied that politicians must compromise, and we want politicians that can compromise. He said to compromise on the battlefield is often or can be fatal. Like the prophets before him, but in a much greater, and divine way, Jesus did not compromise and was prepared to die, not for his country, nor even his friends, but for sinners. We are in the shape we are in today because we are not prepared to die for Christ's sake, even to ourselves, and our church leaders are often too much like politicians, whom we want, and who compromise and accommodate the culture. But we are right there with them. The indulgences of today are more subtle. We expect our church leaders to visit us when we are sick, say nice things about us at our funerals, and indulge our sins, usually in the name of unity. The church must be reformed. Revival is the apprehension of, and the resulting actions taken by virtue of reformation truth, being delivered by a reformed church being the"pillar of truth" in its culture.

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April 29, 2009  2:27pm

It's amazing how quickly we grab a hold of scientific evidence instead of faith. The Christian life is based on faith, and faith isn't always logical, it isn't always clear but it is what will keep us. Many Christians have substituted their faith for reason. We have to return to the place where God is God, supreme and sometimes out of our comprehension. So whether it be to the extent that Cliff has transfered his faith in God's word, for scientific evidence that is based on man's limited calculation (remember man created nothing) or to the extent in our issues we've made this kind of transaction (faith for reason). We've lost it. And like the article says we've just be edging our way there subtly and we'll only realise it when we've begun to tip over, like now. FAITH is the KEY that unlocks everything

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April 29, 2009  1:35pm

Admittedly, the sort of "civil Christianity" that boomers like me grew up with has waned. But it's still quite vibrant in many quarters. I envision things settling into more of a mosaic culture, where Christianity occupies its space, along with a variety of other beliefs and lifestyles. More critical than numbers, I think, is to drill down into what people do believe, and why...

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April 29, 2009  9:44am

Forty years ago I taught 3rd grade in a newly formed Baptist school. The truths I taught of Jesus and God was firmly implanted in my heart and soul. Yet today's scientific advances have challenged my lifelong beliefs in creation and I now understand God created man 13.7 billion years ago when all of existence (what has, what is, and what will ever be) began (to the best of our knowledge so far). There is no human gene. God's creation is now estimated at 70 sextillion (that's 22 zeros) stars and planets and only He knows how many civilizations. The Bible is a McGuffy's Reader for mankind written 1500 years before we could define gravity and perhaps my and your church's problem is not our faith but the our limited capacity to understand and convey God's true omnipotence. This Copernican conflict prevents us from moving forward by binding us to the Old Testament past and naive truths which the general population now recognizes and rejects with increasing disdain. Only when these misunderstandings are addressed and dealt with can we expect Christianity to be respected and Jesus exalted in the name of God.

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April 29, 2009  9:16am

David from Australia nailed it. Read the parable of the soils. We should not confuse the Church, i.e. the Body of Christ, with the church, the human institution.

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April 29, 2009  9:09am

The first thought that comes to my mind is that we have inoculated a whole generation with Christianity. In other words we haven't given them enough to get a full blown case of Christ, just enough to become resistant to any later attempts to reach them. It's what a lack of passionate, authentic and transforming encounters with Christ garner at the end of the day. Just a thought.

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