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The big Pew survey revisited

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.

Discussions - 7 Comments

Is it possible that these shoppers don't believe? They may be looking for a religion that they construct from the cafetieria, and as such is something they create instead of following Christianity. I am not the greatest Christian but I realize that if I start cutting and pasting my religion its not exactly a long step to "doing what I wanna do".

Americans have always been individualistic about religion. Hence, we have so many denominations or denominational subsets. We have that "freedom of conscience" thing that says that each person must figure out religious doctrine for himself, and church orthodoxy plays against that. Really, varieties of religious expression in America has always been a major factor of our culture. It is an aspect of the essentially Protestant culture of America that people are in what would have once been considered a constant mode of dissent.

It is of the essence of America to struggle against orthodoxy in any realm of life. And we have no American authority with any right to tell us what is religiously orthodox and what is not. Americans are free to live in a perpetual state of "Oh yeah? Who says?"

So it is not just a matter of consumer culture and never has been. Even relatively practical considerations can militate against church attendance.

A few off the top:

Given that we are such a mobile society - both that we move residences a lot and that we have cars - we may not settle into a church.

When people divorce, who gets the church in the split?

Given the amount of time people spend at their work, Sunday can be the only day to themselves - truly making that a day of rest.

To me the wonder is that anyone in America bothers to go to church at all. It IS a sacrifice. Is it really a wonder that sacrifice is rare?

The Church shopping is absolutely indicative of modern American society, but the bigger problem is the decline in the number of self-identified Christians and the increase in unaffiliated.



Contrary to Kate, America has actually been more inclined to struggle FOR orthodoxy than has Europe. There was very little in the way of a "fundamentalist" rebellion against liberalism in Europe like there was here in America. (I guess from the Catholic standpoint, America's Protestantism is a sign of rebellion against orthodoxy, but I don't think that is what she meant.)



This survey proves we are going the way of Europe.



I actually think the Church shopping is indicative of an attitude that values novelty and scorns tradition. This attitude, intentional or not, is part of what is behind the decline in Christianity as well.

Protestantism has no central authority to decide what is heresy and what is not. Yes, many American churches do struggle towards orthodoxy, but there has never been a true consensus as to what that is. Those churches that yearn for a legitimate orthodox viewpoint will go back to the ancient creeds, Nicean and Apostle's. However, most churchgoers do not know those, though they might agree with them if they heard them. Maybe this is scorn for tradition, but I think it is an expression of the general illiteracy of our time; a religious illiteracy as opposed to the cultural kind.

OK, perhaps you were making the Catholic all Protestantism is rebellion argument. I have this discussion with Catholic conservatives all the time. Conservative Protestantism in America has never been the theological free-for-all that Catholics seem to think. I disagree that there is no consensus on what is required for orthodoxy. There is a rather broad consensus on what is not up for debate (the essentials or fundamentals) and a lot of debate about the non-essentials. And the essentials coincide very well with the historic creeds. (The Trinity, the dual nature of Christ, the Virgin birth, the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, his sinless life, his sacrificial substitutionary atonement, etc.) Question any of these and you would be self-excluding from the ranks of conservative Protestantism. What conservative Protestant denominations or spokesmen deny any of these? Those who arguably do understand the need to hide the fact that they do and obfuscate using theological language that they may invest with a different meaning. The fact that they can’t just openly advocate deviation from the essentials proves my point. That conservative Protestants have often done a lousy job of actually instilling an understanding of this theology in its parishioners and that they have sometimes failed to police their own is conceded.

I think the rise of the evangelical movement has an interesting correlation with the mass culture commercialization of Christianity. If there's one thing Americans are susceptible to, even when it comes to their religious beliefs (let alone any other principles they might have), it's marketing. Evangelicals know that and I think sometimes they are openly willing to compromise their principles in order to "increase the size of their flock" and look cool (so they don't lose that all important aspect of retaining their youth).



I don't know. I think Mr. Cook's point hits the mark when he talks about Christian "shoppers". The average American moves quite a lot (usually due to his or her job) and I wouldn't be surprised if part of the denominational changes have to do, as Dr. Knippenberg suggests, with changing demographics.

I disagree that there is no consensus on what is required for orthodoxy. There is a rather broad consensus on what is not up for debate (the essentials or fundamentals) and a lot of debate about the non-essentials. And the essentials coincide very well with the historic creeds.

I would agree only to a point Red. Certainly in ecclesiology, which goes to the very idea of what "church" is, there is no agreement. I think the agreement is my necessity a vague idea about "morals" and to a lesser extant "dogma". When you look at real conservative, traditional, "ecumenical" projects like Touchstone magazine there is much to agree on, but ecclesiology is not included.

Of course with the headlong rush into a unitarian apostasy by the "mainline" things are more murky than they ever have been. I hate to mention it, but too much of American Catholicism has made the same attempt, but of course with structural impediments thank God (I speak as an Eastern Orthodox - thus from the outside)..

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