A Response to the Pew Report
by Lawrence Downing, May 28, 2015: America’s Changing Religious Landscape — Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow.
The above title heads the 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life. The Center surveyed more than 35,000 individuals in all 50 states. The findings, published in May 2015, might well give pause to those associated with, or who are leaders in, contemporary religious organizations. For example, the survey found that 70.6% of those surveyed above the age of eighteen count themselves as Christian. Sounds good, until we learn that in 2007, the figure was 78.4%. As the percentage of those who count themselves Christians fell, the percentage of those who state they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” jumped from 16.1% to 22.8%. Add to these numbers the 5.9% who identify themselves with non-Christian faiths. The greatest decline, approximately three percentage points since 2007, was in the mainline Protestants, including Seventh-day Adventists, and Catholics. Evangelical Protestant groups have also declined as a percentage share of the American population, but the decrease, something like one percent, is less dramatic than among the larger religious groups.
Adventist may be tempted to deny or ignore the above data. Historically, we have not identified ourselves as evangelicals or mainline, and certainly not Catholic! Adventists are a self-identified “remnant” group, separate from the others. Our inclination may well be to look at the data, dismiss the findings as not applicable to our case, and do nothing. We are, after all, growing at a pace that surpasses the majority of other religious organizations, so why worry? We can take satisfaction in our numerical growth – until we consider the North American Adventist church. Suddenly, the Pew study has pertinence. Those who pastor North American Adventist churches do not need the Pew study to tell them that problems beset our local congregations. Budgets are under strain. Attendance is down, and the majority of those who do attend are in their 50s or older. Those who study Adventist youth find that fifty percent or more will leave the church by the time they reach their early twenties. The Pew study, when viewed from a longitudinal perspective, indicates that ties to the church will be even less secure among today’s academy and college students than among those of us who graduated in the 1950’s or ‘60s. Questions multiply: what now? How are responsible and concerned church members to respond? Are we to let fate and circumstance control our destiny or is there a place for intentional action? If so, what action is appropriate and effective?
Be assured, I do not have the answers that will reverse the trends that affect the Adventist church. I have given thought to what we might do and areas that I believe need attention. These include, but are not limited, to the following:
- Admit there is “trouble in River City!” Until a matter is identified and owned, there is little chance for change.
- Define our place among those who follow Jesus Christ. How do we want to demonstrate our intent? What are the behaviors and attitudes that are consistent with our claims?
- Identify the people we attract and hold and those we exclude. Are we satisfied with what we find? If not, what needs modification? We know that Millennials are not attracted to organized religious organizations. Do we ignore this demographic? What about other people groups that that do not trust organized religion? Write them off, too?
- How can we address contemporary concerns and remain true to our values?
- Define the purposes for which our ecclesial and organizational structures exist. Determine how each entity succeeds or fails to meet its function. Enhance those that succeed. Delete those that do not.
- What are we willing to “pay” to set our church upon a course that leads to excellence and superior performance, and eschews mediocrity?
- What will inspire church employees, including pastors, and members to be proud of their church and what it promotes and practices?
- Determine whether we are an open or closed society. How might we bring our actions and practices to align with our responses?
- How can we best affirm and support our younger members? Church leaders, both local and national, have at times been more effective blockers than facilitators.
The above points are not offered as solutions to our problems. Not at all! Each statement may contain fundamental flaws. People will be scandalized by some, repulsed by others, and write off still others as the product of a fool. Be that as it may.
When women and men determine that the Adventist church can be more than a footnote in a History of 21st-Century Religion in America textbook, they will do more than agonize over membership loss. They will act. The local parish is the first, the most vital, and most effective responder. It is not realistic or reasonable to look to church officials for answers or for effective solutions to what ails the church. What denominational administrators can do that will assist in these matters is to keep quiet! It is not necessary or beneficial to the local church when leading denomination personnel make statements that divide and alienate our church family. What is necessary and beneficial is for competent, caring people in a local parish to initiate and promote an atmosphere that values and welcomes people.
I invite you to add your suggestions to the above list. Your observations and suggestions are likely as good as the next person’s, perhaps better.