The good folks at Acton have given me an incentive to think about the Pew survey I mentioned yesterday. They even suggested that I take a look at these two essays on church-shopping, which seems to be one of the big take-aways from the report.
Virtually all the major stories on the survey make our church shopping the headline, followed closely by the observation that we’re headed toward minority status for Protestants, and the observation that the secularist category is growing like gangbusters. This WaPo article is typical. The WaTi’s Julia Duin (for my money one of our best religion beat reporters) focuses on the decline of Catholicism (kept afloat by immigrants, but losing those raised in the Church) and the rise of evangelicalism. Get Religion’s Terry Mattingly nicely summarizes the various angles stories have taken.
As for me, I have lots of questions. To wit: why do people move from one church or denomination to another? Are they changing or are the denominations changing? (In the Knippenberg family, it’s a bit of both. We attend a church that’s somewhat like the church in which my wife grew up, but it’s a different denomination. As for my own upbringing...well, that’s another story.)
Another issue: the secular number in the survey is large--around 16%, as I recall. But only 4% of those call themselves atheists or agnostics. The other 12% are divided between people who apparently don’t give religion a thought (let’s call them "worldlings") and those who are kinda sorta spiritual but don’t fit into a denominational box at the moment. Some of the latter are immigrants; some others are young folks. Both these types find themselves in circumstances when their identities (for want of a better term) are in flux. I assume that many of them will settle. Where? So-called seeker-friendly churches are made for people like that, though one hopes that they eventually move from seeking to finding. In a similar vein, I’d add that one thing that tends to motivate people to church or back to church is marriage and family. All of this is a long way of saying that I’m not sure that our relatively high (by American standards) percentage of people who claim no religious affiliation is necessarily a harbinger of a post-religious future. It may be, but a lot depends, I think, on such "mundane" considerations as whether the decay of the family continues apace and whether churches and denominations do a good job of reaching out to immigrants. (Indeed, if our religious health were my principal consideration, I’d be very accommodating to immigrants...and make certain that women and children accompanied the young men. Without the former, the latter are much less likely to find their way into a church.)
Your thoughts and observations are welcome, especially before tomorrow morning, when I’ll be joining the Radio Free Acton podcast.
Update: The not-yet-ex-Catholic Jon Schaff has more. (I by the way do not mean to suggest that he’s on his way to being an ex-Catholic, but I do think he nails one of the problems with Catholic religious education as I experienced it--at least episodically--growing up.) Which leads me to another question connected with our religious fluidity: to the degree that churches all too often consist of rather poorly educated ex-members of other churches, how on earth can anyone successfully inculcate anyone in a religious tradition? Pastors have to carry an awful lot of weight, a problem that’s compounded in the Roman Catholic Church by the relative shortage of priests.
Update #2: You can listen here to the Radio Free Acton podcast.