Every so often, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life releases a study, and everyone in the church pores over it with bated breath, like ancient mariners trying to predict weather in the stars. And so, last week, it was that this year’s study was released, which revealed that the number of people in the United States who are unaffiliated with any organized religion is unprecedentedly high, at just under 20% of the population.
This number is an increase from previous findings, and includes the percentages of atheists and agnostics, but also includes roughly 15% of respondents who believe in God, and have strong spiritual feelings, but don’t feel particularly drawn to organized religion of any stripe. This group has been tagged the “Nones” by the Pew Forum, but that’s hardly a life-giving name, so I’m dubbing them Liminals. (If I’m going to discuss them, then I’d like to give them a name that at least makes them sound extant.) They’re currently residing in an in-between area; they aren’t atheists, they aren’t agnostics, they are fine with God and spirituality, they just haven’t affiliated anywhere.
Digging deeper into the survey, we find that individually, the tenants of what we’d call religion get high marks: belief in God, frequent prayer, even going to services occasionally. Most people do these. But unlike in the past, there is less and less of a compulsion to declare oneself as a member of a religious group, just because you had some nominal relationship to it.
Now, more and more it seems that in order to belong to a group, you need to believe in the group. The group needs to mean something real to you. But overwhelmingly, people who qualify as Liminal describe organized religion as power hungry, over-political, too greedy and too concerned with rules (51% US General population vs 67% Liminals).
In other words, they like God fine. They just don’t associate God with the church.
Which is a fascinating opportunity for us, who have found God to have some sort of relationship with the institutional church. Clearly, the God we have experienced is not currently being communicated clearly through the institution. There’s some block.
Yes, a good chunk of this is because we have been shouted down for the past few decades in the public square by angrier and louder voices claiming to be Christian, but at some point, we need to stand up and take responsibility for what gets said and done in the name of the Christ we worship too, at least in our corner of the Church. Our gospel is not getting through.
So how do we introduce people to the Jesus we know? What can we do, within the church, to better reveal the God we have known? The problem isn’t convincing folks about God and Jesus; the problem is convincing folks that the church still has a clue who God is.