Yesterday morning, Pew Research Center published a new set of data from a recent study on Americans and religion. You may remember a similar study in May of this year called the "American Religious Landscape" survey. (For my take on those, see articles at CNN, USAToday, the Washington Post, and here on my blog.)
The newest data confirms much of what the General Social Survey (the data I used in many of the above articles) shows. America is becoming more secular, but the faithful are remaining devout.
There is more than one thing going on, but a big part is that "nominal" Christians, the data shows us, are abandoning the "Christian" label more in the last seven years than they have before. As every single reliable researcher believes: the church isn't dying.
In other words, there's not a collapse of practicing Christianity, and that's the headline of almost every story, though some people still won't believe it.
But, take a look at the stories and their headlines such as:
Chrisitianity Today: Massive Survey Shows How US Christians Changed from 2007 to 2014
While America’s “nones” keep losing their faith, a significant study finds that religious Americans are staying stable—and by some measures, even growing—in theirs.
Religion News Service: Pew study: More Americans reject religion, but believers firm in faith
Associated Press: Survey: Religious Americans Keep Faith Amid Secularization
There is a lot of shift in the data, but there is a continual drop in nominal Christianity, a relative stability in devout practice, and an increasing polarization of society. I've written an edtiorial in the Washington Post about how we might deal with that reality. As I said in the Washington Post:
America is undergoing a religious polarization.
With more adults shedding their religious affiliations, as evidenced in the latest from the Pew Research Center, the country is becoming more secular. In the past seven years, using the new Pew data, Americans who identify with a religion declined six percentage points. Overall, belief in God, praying daily and religious service attendance have all dropped since 2007.
Today’s America is losing much of the general religious ethos that dominated the U.S. for hundreds of years.
However, the religious, in some ways, are becoming more religious. While fewer people said religion was somewhat important to their lives, there was a jump in those who said religion was very important. Of those who identify with a religion, Pew found an increase in reading Scripture at least weekly, participating in a small group and sharing their faith at least weekly. Church attendance numbers were relatively steady.
There are big and important shifts here. In navigating the new religious environment, Christians must recognize three trends that may change the way they see the culture.
Be sure to look at the WaPo piece here.
I want to ask the question: "How do we, as Christians, live in this new polarized reality?" I addressed some of that culturally in the Washington Post, but let me address it a bit differently here.
The Situation and the "Jesus Solution"
It's clear that people who do not affiliate with any faith are becoming more secular than in years past. The chasm between Christianity and unbelief is widening because before, the "Nominals" sort of bridged the gap by calling themselves Christians though they didn’t attend church or read the Bible regularly.
As the "Nominals" continue to abandon the Christian label for the "None" label, the gap between faithful Christians and unbelievers is becoming more pronounced, and greater ideological polarization is made manifest.
As we Christians watch our views become ever more unpopular in an increasingly polarized culture, the temptation to defend ourselves in vitriolic, even hateful, ways will grow. As we interact with others virtually or in our communities, we must remember our call to live like Jesus. We must not adopt secular rules of engagement regardless of whether culture is religious or irreligious.
Here are three ways Christians can be like Jesus in a polarizing world:
1. Listen better to people who disagree.
Christians are too good at blurting out what we believe and yelling and people who don't like it. We're often too quick to jump to social media to punish our keyboard with our anger and scream at any disagreeing person in our path.
I understand many Christians grew up in historical traditions that say America was founded as a Christian nation. Wherever you are in that discussion if you still think America is a Christian nation your definition of “Christian” might need a review. We're just not. We don't function that way legally or socially. If America was ever a Christian nation, those days are long gone.
I think it's time to have some conversations with secular people. Ask, "How are we going to peacefully coexist in our society?" and listen to what they have to say. Too often we're quick to answer that question ourselves. We need to know how non-believing Americans envision living among religious Americans. In order to understand and grow, we must choose first to listen.
We must remember that the way we often win the ears of others is by learning to use our own. We follow a man named Jesus who commanded us to tell the world about him. If we're too busy yelling, we’ll never make time to tell them that someone loves them enough that He came to die for them. And, they won’t likely listen if we do; who likes to be yelled at?
2. Love people despite their disagreements.
Christ calls us to a better way, a way that requires us to love our neighbors as ourselves and treat others as we hope to be treated. Christians are going to have to learn to get comfortable interacting with unbelievers despite our strong disagreements.
We can't love people we're unwilling to listen to, and we must love people even if we don't agree with their points of view. We can't be so afraid of catching the "sin bug" or being infected with wrong theology that we're unwilling to eat dinner with unbelieving neighbors, or grab coffee with an atheist from work.
Unfortunately, the Church is not known for loving people who are different. Our tendency is to keep outsiders outside, if not pushing them even farther away. That's our fault and to our shame. Others adhere to a culture war narrative that has Christians crushing and hating enemies, rather than loving those who hate us and doing good to those who despise us.
But, we can't hate a people and reach a people at the same time. Christians—words matter, even online, and the more we use our words to hurt and create division, the less opportunity we will be given to use our words to love. The opened door will be closed, and nailed shut. And have a piano pushed against it.
I have heard too many stories of Christian leaders meeting in private with people on different sides of the divide, lest the leader be targeted by a circular firing squad of Christian peers.
We must be allowed, and be eager, to meet with leaders of movements, organizations, and ideologies with whom we disagree in order to make it clear that we don't hate people even if we think they miss the mark on key issues. That's part of loving someone. Actually, it’s integral to loving someone. It’s what Jesus did at the house of Simon, the house of Zacchaeus, and at the well with the Samaritan woman.
If current trends continue, and Christian perspectives and morals get pushed to the periphery over the next 20 to 30 years, unbelievers will be able to look at the quarter of Americans who call themselves Christian and practice their faith and say, "I really disagree with what those people have to say, but I know they care about me and love me, and everyone else."
3. Lead people to understand what we believe.
We need a renaissance of evangelism that grows from relationships. We need a renewed passion for evangelization in our churches that is currently lacking. The world is going to know we're different by our positions; they should know we are different by our actions. Let's tell them why we're different, and live the kinds of lives that give us credibility. Perhaps part of the reason we're known by our disagreement is that we're not working hard enough to by known by our love.
We must be more willing to show and share the love of Jesus. We need a renaissance of mission.
We can't expect people to want to hear what we have to say about Jesus if we make ourselves a banging gong or a clanging symbol on other, less eternal, matters. A Christian’s live should be a symphony of truth, not a cacophony of contradictory assertions. If our lips and lives don’t align, we really have nothing at all to say.
The world needs the Savior and Christians needs to get on mission.
We stand at a key time, but not a discouraging time. Society is more secular and the contrast with Christians will be ever more clear.
As such, the big question is: "Will that contrast be between a secular world and Christians that listen and love like Jesus, leading people to Him, or will we be something else?"
Jesus's way is always the better way.
The last point of this article is part of the reason we've created a partnership with the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College.