Hearing about a new survey of American religious trends might cause you to think that Christianity is going to the dogs.
The American Religious Identification Survey of 2008 is a survey of trends in Americans' patterns of religious beliefs, belonging, and behavior.
The headline for this survey could be "Americans Are Still Predominantly Christian, But Steadily Becoming Less Christian." A major shift occurred in the 1990's toward the number of Americans who have no religious identity, those called the "nones" in the survey. Since 1990, the "nones" grew by 138 percent; from 8.2 percent of the population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.
Identification with "historic mainline denominations" registered the steepest decline while "non-denominational Christian" groups has been trending upward since 2001. For the record, "Methodist" identification (which includes all Methodist churches as well as the UMC) declined from 8 percent in 1990 to 5 percent in 2008.
"Baptist" identification declined from 19.3 percent to 15.8 percent, but has seen a growth spurt since 2001. Catholics declined from 26.2 percent to 25.1 percent, and ethnic identification with the Catholic Church has become much more Hispanic. Identification with Pentecostal-Chrismatics increased from 3.2 percent to 3.5 percent.
How to respond to this information? I can only give my own views.
I learned that our society is not turning away from Christianity to other faiths as much as it is becoming more secular. This causes glee in some circles. In his New York Times column, Frank Rich seemed to celebrate the re-emergence of a "secular religion of social consciousness" as a (wink, wink) "answer to prayer."
Secularism is not a new phenomenon in American life. Church membership was very low in the colonial period, and social heroes like Thomas Paine were contemptuous of orthodox Christian belief.
I also learned that Americans' identification with Methodism, as well as with other churches that have been prominent in American society during the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century, is declining. Sociologically, this is not surprising given the rapid growth in American population and the impressive diversity of the religious backgrounds of immigrants. Demographically this is a much bigger and more complex society than our oldest citizens remember when they were young.
In my view, the focus of our attention as United Methodist Christians should be on countering secularism among our own members, especially youth, and learning to reach out to people who profess no faith and have no experience with the Christian faith.
It is often said that one characteristic of "mainline Protestant churches" is that they give their youth a watered-down version of the Christian faith which only prepares them to live their adult lives outside the church. If being Christian is being "nice," then you do not need be a part of a church to do that. If being Christian is being a disciple of Jesus Christ in the world, then you need all the support and guidance a Christian community can give to do that. It seems to me that this survey should make church leaders at every level realize that secularism is a power in our culture, and we should provide the kind of Christian formation which gives people the intellectual and spiritual ability to resist it. In other words, the day of cultural religion is over, and it is time to shape the life of the church around the serious formation of disciples of Christ.
We also should learn how to relate to and evangelize secular people. We should not patronize secular people, but we should take them and their questions very seriously. If we view the arena of our mission as secular, rather than as culturally Christian, then we will take a different approach than most of us have ever taken. At the forefront of our life will be serious Christian initiation in which people will come to believe and behave as disciples of Jesus Christ and to be baptized as adults. We should think of adult baptism as the norm, and give baptism prominence in our public worship, while continuing infant/child baptism as suitable for practicing Christian families. Everything the church does, from worship to mission, will have to be appropriate to the task of Christian initiation leading to adult or family baptism. This is not the 1950's, but it is also not the 1980's or 1990's either. Too many of us who have criticized the forms of church life in the 1950's are now trying to perpetuate the forms of church life of the 1980's and 1990's oriented to the cultural Christian milieu of the baby boom generation.
Because the Spirit of God is active in human history and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power which continually transforms lives and societies, we ought not have any anxiety about the future of Christianity. To reform the church we have inherited, we should make a witness and pray in ways that would orient our Christian community to be in tune with God's work at this moment in history.
G. K. Chesterton once said that there have been several times in the history of the church when it was believed that the church had gone to the dogs; but, in every case, it was the dog that died.