A declining church in a spiritual culture

Results from a recent Pew study may concern and confuse those who care about the place of faith in the community.

On the one hand, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Protestants has dropped from two thirds to less than half, while the number of those who claim no faith tradition has risen dramatically. At the same time, two-thirds of the non-churched believe in God, one-fifth pray every day and more than half think of themselves as religious or spiritual. What’s going on? Tim Neufeld, D. Min., associate professor of contemporary Christian ministries at Fresno Pacific University, presents some ideas on what this means and how churches should react in this Scholars Speak.

A declining interest in religion has been well documented, but a recent survey by the Pew Forum signals the trend is accelerating. For the first time, less than half of the U.S. population considers itself Protestant. Just 40 years ago, Protestants could boast an affiliation with two-thirds of the country.

The number of those who don't identify with any faith tradition has also skyrocketed. Forty years ago only 7 percent of the country reported no religious affiliation. That number rose to 15 percent five years ago, and today almost 20 percent of Americans declare they are unaffiliated with any religion.

The culture, however, is not as secularized as we might conclude. Of those who don't claim any religious tradition, two-thirds believe in God, one-fifth pray every day and over half think of themselves as religious or spiritual. What is going on? How do we make sense of a trend toward religious disaffiliation while living in a highly spiritual culture?

A quick history lesson

Protestant churches are a product of the Modern Age. Beginning with the 16th-century Reformation, Luther and others reshaped worship. The Catholic liturgy, including the Mass, iconography, lofty architecture and other "smells and bells," focused on the transcendence and mystery of God. The Protestant reformers rejected the liturgy and centered worship around sermons as a rational presentation of Scripture.

The 18th-century Enlightenment reinforced rationalized Christianity with increased attention to scientific method and intellectualism. Society shifted from a mystical worldview in which God and creation were divinely connected to a scientific understanding. Pioneers of the Enlightenment worked diligently to explain and predict the world by dissecting, categorizing and systematizing everything, including theology.

Today, the effects of modernity are everywhere. The supernatural has given way to the scientific. The mysterious has been reduced to a molecular equation. The transcendent is sacrificed for the temporal. In addition, community life has been superseded by individual needs, desires and rights. With modernity came advancements in science, politics, economics and industry, but the gains have come at a cost—the loss of a holistic, communal and transcendent connection with God.

A modern model of church

For 40 years the dominant model of church growth has been the "seeker sensitive" approach. Church leaders have defined precise systems for attracting the unaffiliated. The formula is well established: target an audience, create a comfortable worship style and hire a pastor who can preach a sermon in three to five bullet points.

But, the Pew survey reflects the flaw in this strategy. While one-fifth of Americans claim no connection to any faith tradition, only 10 percent of these unaffiliated are actually seeking a religious experience. The implications of this last statistic can't be understated: Protestant churches are competing for an infinitesimally small number of seekers. The main strategy of the contemporary church has been to seek out a group of people who are not interested in being sought.

The good news

While the unaffiliated avoid the institutional church, they are not devoid of spirituality or opposed to thinking about God. They just do this in different ways, thus providing opportunities for church leaders to imagine new means for engaging the culture.

Here are a few suggestions to churches for serving those outside their doors. First, focus on building relationships and stop treating people as targets in a marketing scheme. Postmoderns are quickly offended by a sales job. Second, show the relevance of Scripture to social problems such as global poverty, human trafficking and fair trade. Altruism and justice are engaging issues for those outside traditional church structures. Third, work to reconnect the creation and the Creator. Churches have long ignored environmental issues, something that postmoderns highly value. Finally, create events that are intergenerational and multicultural. An emerging generation is suspicious of the flagrant homogeneity found in most churches.

The data is clear: Protestants are fleeing the church. Will the church continue the same old pattern of simply trying to attract seekers who aren’t seeking? Or, will worshiping communities find opportunities to engage the culture in creative, new, Spirit-led ways? Albert Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” That’s good advice for the church.

Main Image