By Jeff Brumley
ASSOCIATED BAPTIST PRESS — A new study which shows the decline of religion in America may be worse than imagined but didn’t impress or shock Craig Nash, the community pastor at University Baptist Church in Waco, TX.
For years now, Nash said he’s watched as study after study reports significant drops in key measurements like church attendance, prayer life and denominational identity.
“I feel like these surveys come out every six months and they say the same thing,” Nash said.
Worse yet, they keep some congregations and ministers so fearful that they constantly try to dream up ways to keep people from leaving their churches.
“It focuses ministry away from helping people find their way toward God and onto accommodation,” Nash said. “It makes us ask ‘why are people leaving and what can we do to get them back?’”
And the problem with that, he said, is it can make church conform to the culture.
“When I accommodate your needs and preferences, those needs and preferences become paramount.”
The recent set of data that has sparked Nash’s and others’ reflections were compiled by Tobin Grant, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University, who also studies religion.
In his Corner of Church and State blog for Religion News Service, Grant presented his case for what he called “The Great Decline,” accompanied by a graphic depicting the precipitous fall of religion from the early 1990s through 2012.
The study tracks American religious behavior back to 1952, and overall shows a gradual decline beginning in the mid-1950s and becoming more pronounced after 1992.
The trend was mapped by combining several recent wide-scale surveys, and an algorithm was used to track more than 400 surveys conducted during the past 60 years.
“Religiosity in the United States is in the midst of what might be called ‘The Great Decline,’” Grant wrote in his Jan. 27 blog post. “Over the past fifteen years, the drop in religiosity has been twice as great as the decline of the 1960s and 1970s.”
‘More to come’
He told ABPnews/Herald the study tracks behaviors — such as church attendance — and does not necessarily mean people are not pursuing spirituality in other ways or that they are becoming atheists.
Grant said he hopes churches, seminaries and other organizations may find the data useful in relating to the growing number of Americans who are turned off by religion or who have had no exposure to biblical teachings and concepts.
The numbers can also help clergy and congregations prepare for the future, he added.
“There could be a lot more drop to come,” Tobin said.
‘This is real and undeniable’
Church consultants like Bill Wilson have already found Grant’s survey useful in convincing congregations they must change to survive.
Wilson, founder of the North Carolina-based Center for Healthy Churches, said he’s been using the study and graphic in presentations at two kinds of ailing congregations.
“Many congregations live in a state of denial or they live in a fear that this is their problem and only their problem,” Wilson said.
The denial camp, he said, don’t acknowledge they exist in a post-Christian culture and that institutional congregations are in great decline.
“A document like this helps people see this is real and this is undeniable,” he said.
‘Leads to a rebirth’
The other group benefits, too, by seeing their own declines in attendance and giving are part of a bigger trend.
“They think they are the exception and want to try harder to overcome what they think is a temporary setback.”
Such studies can also spark congregations into action, he added.
“Just because we’re in a ‘Great Decline’ is not necessarily bad news — there is some sense in which that decline leads to a rebirth of a more New Testament-oriented church.”
Wilson agreed that accommodating the culture isn’t the way to go. Instead, congregations must examine their reason for being as a way to craft a future mission.
“They have to ask ‘why are we here, and what is our calling?’” he said.
‘Not a marketing thing’
What churches need to avoid, when inspired by information about religious declines, are “goofy” responses such as “how to become more relevant,” said Eric Elnes, a United Church of Christ minister and leader in the national convergence church movement.
Congregations must avoid adopting “whatever society is into and do great marketing,” Elnes said. “They think this is a marketing thing, which it’s not.”
What it is is a belief in an increasing number of Americans’ heads that churches are about formality and that spirituality is best pursued elsewhere.
An example would be the so-called “nones,” Americans identified in recent surveys as having no religious affiliations at all — some of them for their entire lives.
“I don’t think they are losing faith,” Elnes said. “Church has become the last place where people assume they can find a spiritual path — and it needs to be the first.”
The church that evolves from “The Great Decline” will likely be one where people can find that path to God while allowing for a “healthy post-modern skepticism.”
And Elnes said he’s actually encouraged by Grant’s studies and others like it because a stronger, more engaging church will be the result.
“I find myself more optimistic about the future of the Christian faith than I have been in 30 years,” he said.
Jeff Brumley is assistant editor of Associated Baptist Press.