In May 2015, the Pew Research Center released the report of its second Religious Landscape survey, in which more than 35,000 American adults were asked a variety of questions about their religious faith, affiliation, and experience in the months between June and September of 2014. It should come as little surprise that, when the initial report was made available to the public, observers were less than optimistic about what the survey revealed regarding the state of religious affiliation in America and especially Christianity. Pew’s previous Religious Landscape survey was conducted in 2007, and in it, 78.4 percent of respondents identified as Christian. Seven years later, that number has fallen to 70.6 percent of those surveyed.1
Many commentators presented their own diagnoses of what the 2014 survey reveals as a growing problem for organized religion: that of the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, whom Pew analysts often labeled “nones” in the report.2 Nones went from being only 16.1 percent of those surveyed in 2007 to almost 23 percent of 2014 respondents.3 The religious group that saw its share of the American population grow the most in the last seven years is, ironically enough, the group of Americans who do not identify with any religion at all.
Observers were quick to use sharp language in their analysis of the Pew report. Daniel Burke, CNN’s religion editor, wrote of “the collapse of American Christianity.”4 At the Upshot blog for The New York Times, Nate Cohn argued that “there are few signs that the decline in Christian America will slow.”5 Elwood Watson, a professor at East Tennessee State University, warned that “the millennial situation is particularly alarming,” referencing portions of the survey that showed that young Americans are more likely to describe themselves as nones than any other age group.6
However, in all of the heated discussion about nones, and in the midst of describing the perceived decline of American Christianity with amplified terms and phrases, many commentators neglected to mention more particular aspects of the survey that could help Christian clergy tailor their messages and strategies to a changing religious climate. Many have written about the nones, but few have addressed the “nons”: non-white evangelicals, non-denominational congregations, and non-Christian religious traditions. All three of these groups actually grew in the past seven years, and learning about the nature of that growth could be helpful to pastors and lay leaders in the Church of the Nazarene in congregations all across the American religious landscape.
The recent Pew survey indicates that the Protestant faith tradition in the United States is becoming less racially homogenous; in the years between 2007 and 2014, racial minorities went from making up almost one-fifth of the evangelical Protestant population to almost one-fourth.7
This shift toward ethnic diversity in the evangelical Protestant family reflects a positive trend for American Christianity and for organized religion as a whole. In fact, the Pew report showed that the nones are less diverse in terms of race than those who identify with an established religion. With the prediction that America’s white population will reach minority status within the next four decades, evangelical Protestantism’s increasing racial diversity puts local churches in an optimal position to better reflect their surrounding communities.
Ironically, while the religious nones grew the most as a share of the American population from 2007 to 2014, people who identified as nondenominational Christians made up the fastestgrowing group within Christianity. This group went from being 4.5 percent of the American population in 2007 to 6.2 percent in 2014.8 In other words, the Christian denomination that grew the most in the last seven years was the “nondenomination.” In 2014, 13 percent of respondents who identified themselves as Protestant Christians did not associate themselves with any denomination, up from 9 percent in 2007.9 This trend indicates that the state of American Christianity is not as easily characterized as many commentators have made it seem. Considering the recent survey and associated observations about religious faith in America, David Briggs, who writes for the Association of Religion Data Archives, asked, “Does it all reveal a downturn in the role of religion in American life or does it reflect a reordering of beliefs and practices in younger generations?”10 Clearly, in the same way that religious faith in America is undergoing a sort of realignment, so too is American Christianity also undergoing an internal realignment.
Finally, non-Christian religious groups have seen notable growth in the past seven years, as reflected in the Pew survey results. These faith traditions, which include Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, went from being 4.7 percent of the U.S. population in 2007 to 5.9 percent in 2014.11 There are two factors here that are worth mentioning. First, Pew reported that 29 percent of respondents who were from non-Christian religious traditions were also born outside the United States. This means that non-Christian religious growth has been bolstered by immigration. At the same time, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu populations in America have not been as affected by the undertow of poor retention rates. The Pew survey indicated that 80 percent, 77 percent, and 75 percent of those who grew up in Hindu, Muslim, or Jewish households, respectively, still identify as such. If this recent data is any indication, the future of American religious life may not lie so much in secularism as in fragmentation.
Much has been written about how many Americans born after 1980 are, relative to other generations, disproportionately unaffiliated with any religious group. The Pew report reflects this reality: More than one-third of millennials are nones, compared with less than a quarter of Generation Xers.12 However, the Pew report also revealed some surprising information about millennials and evangelical Protestantism. The survey indicated that 65 percent of those who were raised as evangelical Protestants still identify as such;13 when it comes to millennials who were raised in these households, 61 percent continue to associate with their childhood tradition.14
This means that, even though evangelicals may be struggling to retain and attract millennials (a 61 percent retention rate should not, after all, be a source of immense pride), millennials are not necessarily leaving evangelical Protestantism at a much higher rate than previous generations. Obviously, churches still need to assess their own approach to the millennials in their local communities, and a great deal has been written about this subject. The Pew survey’s information in this regard could be instructive in correcting some miscalculations about the relationship between American young people and Christianity.
How, then, can pastors in local churches think about their work in light of these nons?
First, the encouragement and promotion of a congregation’s racial diversity in the surrounding community’s context would be one way to embody the general population’s multicultural future. One way to accomplish this goal would be to emphasize the role of the church in nearby neighborhoods and to encourage congregants to think more deeply about how they can reach out to people in the vicinity of the building where the congregation meets.
Second, clergy in the Church of the Nazarene should not look at the nondenominational churches in their vicinities as competitors but as partners in local ministry. Perhaps one of the first steps a pastor can take in this regard is to host inter-denominational events for clergy, where pastors from various churches of all theological persuasions in the area can have a chance to make meaningful connections. Even further, people who attend non-denominational churches can be exposed to how association with an international denomination like the Church of the Nazarene can allow them to make a greater global impact in areas such as compassionate ministries than being part of an independent church silo.
Third, local pastors should recognize how growing communities that identify with non-Christian religious traditions present congregations with opportunities for crosscultural missions. One of the central aspects of
this understanding should be the presence of charity and tolerance when talking about non-Christian faiths like Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism. For instance, when paraphrasing or explaining specific beliefs associated with these faith traditions, clergy members should take great care to present those views with accuracy, rather than risk alienating members of the surrounding community by giving haphazard summaries of what others believe.
These three practices all require nuance, grace, and humility; emphasizing racial inclusion, partnering with congregations that have no denominational affiliation, and demonstrating charity behind the pulpit when it comes to discussing non-Christian faiths each presents its own set of challenges. Yet these challenges reflect the increasing intricacies of the American religious context.
CHRIS ESTEP is a student studying history and religion at Eastern Nazarene College in Boston, Massachusetts.
1Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 3.
4Daniel Burke, “Millennials Leaving Church in Droves, Study Finds,” cnn.com, May 4, 2015, accessed June 10, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/12/living/pew-religion-study/index.html.
5Nate Cohn, “Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christian,” The New York Times, May 12, 2015, accessed June 10, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/12/upshot/big-drop-in-share-ofamericans-calling-themselves-christian.html.
6Elwood D. Watson, “Religion and the Current State of Ambivalence Among the American Populace,” The Huffington Post, June 4, 2015, accessed June 10, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elwood-d-watson/religion-and-thecurrent-_b_7481796.html
7Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 52.
10David Briggs, “‘Nones’ are ‘Someones’ in Vibrant U.S. Religious Landscape,” The Huffington Post, May 20, 2015, accessed June 10, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-briggs/nones-are-someones-invib_b_7314554.html
11Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 54.
12Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Ibid., 11.