Several years ago, the actress Evan Rachel Wood proclaimed on Twitter, “I believe in god but I am not religious. I am spiritual. My definition of god isnt in any religion. Its very personal. [sic]”. Her sentiments are not alone in Hollywood only but across America. In today’s religious landscape, we hear so many people, not just millennials, uttering the phrase, “I am not religious; I am just spiritual.” It has become so commonplace that we do not even give it much thought any longer when we hear it. This has become the case just within the last four decades.
To a previous generation, this phrase would bear no real meaning. Religious identity was a part and parcel testament to where their roots of heritage lay and as to where they stood on a variety of moral, ethical, cultural, and social issues. Needless to say, that is no longer the case. Even for those that were nominally Christian, you would hear the responses when asked: “I grew up Catholic.” or “I am Presbyterian, but I don’t attend regularly.”
Now before you stop reading this article thinking that this is just another screed against the non-churchgoers, I emphatically say it is not. This article is a challenge and a clarion call to the majority of mainline churches of all denominations as to why their pews have emptied and their memberships have dwindled. According to a Pew Research Center white paper “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” published in 2014, 23% percent of Americans identify themselves as “nones” (unaffiliated to any organized religious tradition). This was a 7% increase since the last similar study was done in 2007. Also noted was the number of Christians had declined from 78% percent to 71% percent. To be sure, the bulk of those who identified themselves as “nones” lie mostly among the millennial population.
When Pew conducted a survey connected to its white paper, it asked why those adults chose to be religiously unaffiliated. The most frequent responses included things such as they: 1.) questioned the validity of a particular teachings; 2.) didn’t agree with faith traditions’ social and political positions; 3.) were suspicious of church hierachal structures; and 4.) so no value to affiliation due to basic lack of relevance to their life circumstances.
What churches should glean from all of this is the following. Obviously, the passive comfortable approach that has been taken over the last several decades does not work. The “build it and they will come” mindset is not sensible. Church leaders need to be engaged in the real world and not secluded in their own ghettos of their own making. I think that the reason that the whole non-denominational megachurch movement has been so wildly successful over the last thirty years has been for that very reason. Congregations such as Seacoast Church, for example, recognized that there were unchurched people and they set out to create a church home for them. And guess what happened, not only did the unchurched start coming, but churchgoers from other established denominations started to attend! This is what it means to fill a need.
This is not to say that historical liturgical churches such give up their prescribed forms of worship to be “contemporary” or “trendy.” On the contrary, they should continue to be true to who they are in identity because in many ways the liturgy is their greatest missional witness they have as a distinctive church. What it does mean is this: congregations and church leadership’s disposition need to change when it comes to engaging the culture. What we see in many of the declining churches is a fear and avoidance of the culture. It is even taught in some circles, that society is something to be avoided at all cost and not to be lived in at all. All we need to do is read 25th chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew to see that that is in direct opposition to what the Lord Jesus taught when He said that the criteria of judgement on the Last Day is going to be, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:31-46).
Churches need to get out of their comfort zones if they really are to be seen as necessary and relevant to people. Or else they remain perceived as museums that exist for their own self-preservation. That is what the “nones” have been telling us for a long time. St. Basil the Great wrote, “I know many who fast, pray, sigh, and demonstrate every manner of piety, so long as it costs them nothing, yet would not part with a penny to help those in distress.” Are we going to continue to be so self-absorbed that we ignore the needs of the people whom we claim to serve? Or are we going to make a change? This is a great challenge to undertake, but one that offers even greater opportunity for the Kingdom of God.
John G. Panagiotou is a theologian and scholar who received his doctorate at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is a professor at Cummins Memorial Theological Seminary where he is the liaison offer to the president. Dr. Panagiotou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.