On March 9, a wake-up call was issued to the church in America. That’s the day the new American Religious Identification Study was released. It revealed that the number of Americans who identified themselves as Christians had dropped 10 percent (from 86 percent to 76 percent) in almost 20 years (1990-2008).
The concern should not be focused on losing power and control. Seventy-six percent is still a very healthy majority. The more alarming trend is the growing number of Americans who describe themselves as having no religious affiliation.
This group has doubled since 1990 and reflects 20 percent of those living on the West Coast and 22 percent of those living in the New England states. Closer to my home, this same study found that many Kentuckians have joined the ranks of those professing no religious preference rising from 7 percent to 13 percent, following the patterns of the rest of the nation.
These folks have been given a name by the researchers. They are called the “nones” and are typically young, male (60 percent), single and, if from New England, middle-aged and ex-Catholic. They view the church and all religion in general as irrelevant.
There are many predictable responses, ranging from a call to mass evangelism campaigns to an anxious fear of living in the last days, if not of the world, at least of the church.
Neither extreme is helpful. Simply retreading the “old-time” religion with past and “proven” strategies will be effective only for those locked in a time warp of nostalgia and sentimentality. Refusing to identify and acknowledge the more nuanced and valid standards of credibility and believability now present in our society underscores the very peril this study forecasts.
Nor should we respond with predictions of doom and gloom, a perspective that is the very antithesis of what it should mean to be a people of faith.
Instead, I offer two questions to ponder and eventually answer: Within the church, how can we best become the presence of Christ? Outside our walls, how can we best reveal the presence of Christ?
Both questions ask us to wrestle with a different way to make Christ known, something less focused on “telling” and more concerned with “being.” Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a preacher; I believe telling is important.
But haven’t we done way too much telling without developing this deeper and more serious call to being and becoming? It’s obvious to me. Empty words – without a Christ-like change in lifestyle – leads to empty churches, and I’m for none of that.
Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.