Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Look at Pew's Religious Landscape Study

Yesterday, the Pew Research Center released its Changing Religious Landscape Study updating research previously performed in 2007. News headlines fronted the study's finding that the percentage of American adults (note that all of the information described herein concerns the adult population) that identified their religious affiliation as Christian had declined by 8 percent since 2007. As that news began to depress the faithful, it began to be noticed that evangelicals had actually increased by 2 million adherents during the time frame, causing those believers to declare the larger decline a mainline (read: liberal) Protestant and Catholic problem. While they had grown numerically, the evangelicals had declined by roughly 1% when compared to the overall population. Thus, population growth has outpaced evangelical growth. Nonetheless, relieved to express thanks that they were not like those mainline publicans, evangelical writers quickly told their readers that they could sleep tonight knowing that all is well.

Both versions of the poll's interpretations are overly simplistic and tell only part of the story. Neither Pollyanna nor Chicken Little is right. What is the truth?

Before trying to answer that question, I would urge readers to take time to look beyond the headlines to the actual study. For those not inclined to read the entire study, Pew has a user friendly interactive tool that is actually quite helpful. Quite apart from the issue everyone is talking about, there is a wealth of interesting and useful information. For example, the survey found that evangelicals in the United States are 55% female and 55% married, and that 43% have not attended college. I was surprised to find that 35% had an annual household income of less than $30,000, and 57% had an income below $50,000. This provides a different perspective than might be assumed by those who associate evangelicalism with suburban megachurches, and I wondered if those income numbers are skewed downward by older evangelicals on fixed incomes or if Christianity is really doing that well among folks with meager incomes. Regardless, all of those data points could create some interesting points of discussion regarding Christian ministry and outreach.

The survey also allows for isolation of religious trends in some metropolitan areas. For example, it was interesting to note that evangelicals in Dallas are 51% male, while they only make up 45% of evangelicals nationwide. I would be very interested in hearing from anyone who has a theory as to why that would be. Evangelicals comprise over 25% of the population across the southern tier of the country (38% in Dallas), but never represent more than 20% in the north and are in the single digits in some metropolitan areas, thus making clear the extent to which large swaths of the country are really a mission field.

The numbers of evangelicals and Christians in the opening paragraph were developed based mostly on church affiliation, and they are not reflective of extent of commitment, the level of influence one's faith has on his or her life, or the level of understanding that one has of the faith. Churches that got people included in the evangelical grouping ranged widely, from Pentecostal and charismatic groups to most Baptists (but not the mainline American Baptist Convention) to conservative Presbyterians and Lutherans (not the mainline PCUSA or ELCA). The liberal mainline denominations have declined rapidly, and the Catholics are not that far behind in that regard. As mentioned previously, evangelicals have fared better.

But that should not be taken to mean that all is well. Not only have evangelicals failed to pick up adherents from those abandoning mainline denominations, but they also have not been able to really take advantage of the fact that evangelical birthrates are likely higher than other more liberal faith groups. In addition, socially conservative Catholics comprising much U.S. immigration have not found their way into evangelical churches in large numbers, at least not large enough to move the needle on overall percentage. Finally, the time period between 2007 and 2014 includes a serious economic downturn. In previous eras, such national crises tended to be associated with upticks in religious belief, but that doesn't seem to have happened at all during this time.

Finally, evangelicals should not feel good about the increasing numbers of people defining themselves as hostile toward or indifferent to religion. As a percentage of the total population, atheists have nearly doubled from 1.6% to 3%, and agnostics have seen a roughly 40% increase by the same measure. The percentage of those that just don't care has also continued to increase. That growth has tended to be young and highly educated, and the continuation of that trend may have significant repercussions for American culture. How will evangelicals proclaim a robust faith in the face of a growing secularization of the culture.

American Christianity over the last more than two centuries have been accustomed to a largely accommodating cultural environment. While evangelical numbers remain relatively stable, the future promises to provide more headwinds in opposition to evangelical faith and practice. The church needs to gird itself for that reality.

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