The Growing “Unaffiliated” Chasm—and Why We Have to Leap into It

            One of the most difficult things for “churched people”-like most of us-to grasp is how different the world outside of faith is. It also may be the most important thing for us to explore and learn, because if we take our Great Commission calling seriously, all of us live as missionaries to people in a different culture –people who live next door, or work in the next cubicle, or sit in the same classroom.           

          Thus, the release last week of U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is an important one for us to consider. The findings are the result of a massive survey of 35,000 Americans aged 18 and older, conducted last summer.   The report made all the major news outlets, usually focusing on the report’s primary conclusion: the American religious marketplace is extremely volatile and fluid, with more than 40% of American Christians leaving their religious heritage for another.  It confirms the general findings of other recent surveys that mainline Protestant churches are declining, non-denominational churches are growing and the nation retains a Protestant majority (though by an increasingly slim margin). Catholics have retained their numbers-but primarily by the influx of Hispanic immigrants.  None of that is really news.

            As I read the report, one aspect jumped out and shook me.  The people surveyed placed themselves in one of three primary religious groups:  Christians, adherents to world religions (Islam, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.), and Unaffiliated-those claiming no religion.  Any guesses as to which is the fastest growing religious group in the United States?  Yep-it is the Unaffiliated.

            Walking through the report, here’s what we find out about the unaffiliated. Read this slowly and let the implications sink in…

            + Overall, 7.3% of the adult population says they were unaffiliated with any particular religion as a child. Today, however, 16.1% of adults

say they are unaffiliated, a net increase of 8.8 percentage points. They thus comprise the fourth largest “religious” tradition in the United States, nearly approximating the number of members of mainline Protestant churches.

+ Men are significantly more likely than women to claim no religious affiliation. Nearly one-in-five men say they have no formal religious affiliation, compared with roughly 13% of women.

– People not affiliated with any particular religion stand out for their relative youth compared with other religious traditions. Among the unaffiliated, 31% are under age 30 and 71% are under age 50. (Note: this is right in the middle of Victory’s median age.)

+ Young adults ages 18-29 are much more likely than those age 70 and older to say that they are not affiliated with any particular religion (25% vs. 8%).  (We have not been effectively passing the faith on from generation to generation)

            + One-quarter of all adults 18-29 are not affiliated with any particular religion, which is and nine percentage points higher than in the overall adult population. (We’re losing the emerging generations)

            + Among people who are currently unaffiliated with any particular religion, nearly eight-in-ten were raised as members of one religion or another.

+ 17% of those raised Baptist end up non-affiliated. (what does this say about our discipleship and faith-shaping of children, youth and families?)

+ Between 15% and 19% of members of all educational groups say they are unaffiliated with any particular religion. But among the most well-educated groups, the unaffiliated tend to be more secular than among the less well-educated.

+ One-third of the unaffiliated have at least one child at home. (Reaching children and teenagers may have multiplied impact)

+ 11-20% of population of Kentucky identifies themselves as unaffiliated.

          Do you see? I’m quite sure some of the “Unaffiliated” are our neighbors, co-workers, classmates and family. These precious people are the focus of our mission.  These are those we want to lead to know and treasure Jesus above all things. But is that possible?   Aren’t people who say they have no religion angry and antagonistic?   Can we have any sort of conversation with an atheist, agnostic or angry former church member?

            Note this fascinating finding of the survey:

“The Landscape Survey finds that the unaffiliated population is quite diverse and that it is simply not accurate to describe this entire group as nonreligious or “secular.” Roughly one-quarter of the unaffiliated population identifies itself as atheist (1.6% of the overall adult population) or agnostic (2.4% of the adult population). But the remaining three-quarters (12.1% of the adult population) consists of people who describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular….

 About half of people who describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular’ (6.3% of the overall adult population) say that religion is not too important or not at all important in their lives. Thus, they can be thought of as being mostly secular in their orientation. But the other half of this group (5.8% of adults) says that religion is somewhat important or very important in their lives, despite their lack of affiliation with any particular religious group. Thus, this group can be thought of as the “religious unaffiliated.”

…. It is important to note, however, that more than a third (35%) of young adults who have no particular religious affiliation are in the “religious unaffiliated” category, that is, they say that religion is somewhat important or very important in their lives.

So, many people who are unaffiliated with a religion might call themselves “spiritual”, or even attend a church on occasion. Many would be open to a conversation over coffee about spiritual matters, or would respond to an invitation to a Bible study or worship service.  This is especially true for the 18-29 age group; they are still leaning towards faith, and will respond.  

 Here’s another significant observation:

“Overall, 3.9% of the adult population reports being raised without any particular religious affiliation but later affiliating with a religious group. However, more than three times as many people (12.7% of the adult population overall) were raised in a particular faith but have since become unaffiliated with any religious group.”

In other words, there are a bunch of “de-churched” people out there.  These are people with some exposure to the Christian faith, but for some reason they have walked away. My guess is that if we’re willing to patiently invest in loving and authentic relationships with our de-churched friends, we will see some positive response.

One more word of hope:  

 As mentioned previously, the group that has exhibited the strongest growth as a result of changes in affiliation is the unaffiliated population. Nevertheless, the overall retention rate of the unaffiliated population is relatively low (46%) compared with other groups. This means that more than half (54%) of those who were not affiliated with any particular religion as a child now identify themselves as members of one religion or another

People who are unaffiliated are not unreachable. They are willing to hear and consider the claims of the gospel.  But somebody has to deal with them and that somebody is us.

            All around us are people who are spiritually wandering.  Many have given up on the church and walked away from connection with anybody’s church.  They don’t see themselves as belonging anywhere.  Thus, they are “unaffiliated”.

But unaffiliated people have not necessarily walked away from Jesus.  A friend (you? me?) who will love them, serve them, listen to them, invest in them, demonstrate and communicate the gospel to them may be used of the Lord to bring them to know and treasure Jesus.

Unaffiliated people need for Jesus’ people to care enough about their lives and eternal destiny to invest in them with patience, grace and even joy.

 Unaffiliated people need someone to look them in the eye so they know they are not just a statistic, but a person who matters and is passionately loved by God.

Unaffiliated people need someone to remind them that there really is a place where they belong-with Jesus and His people. 



2 responses

  1. This is a powerful statement of the direction of open belief, and the expansion of the individual’s willingness to “question” religion, spirituality and view each dogma with an open-mind. In my new book: “Looking for God within the Kingdom of Religious Confusion”, I stress this decision for remaining open-minded by concluding:

    “My journey across the Kingdom of Religious Confusion was full of twists and turns, more than anyone should have to experience in their search for God. In fact, the bias, hatred, and contradictions within and between religions often caused me to doubt God’s existence. They certainly did little to confirm His presence within their segregated worlds”…”If I have chosen the incorrect paths to follow, I believe a compassionate God knows the chaos I am trying to reconcile, and the ease in which a seeker can lose their way. I believe if I should travel the wrong path, God will know my journey has been in a righteous direction, not perfect by a long shot, and accept me for trying.”

    AW Schade

  2. […] from the Pew Forum. CNN, AP, Time, Newsweek and all the major newspapers covered it. As noted in a previous post, most came to similar (and mostly correct), analyses of the 140-page survey: the religious world in […]

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