The institution is crumbling! The church is declining! Evangelicalism is crumbling!
You’ve heard it all before. How did it happen?
The main reason is simple. The once dominant white Protestant demographic has now become a slight minority in America. You can blame baby boomers for that. They were the first to leave in droves. Christendom has crumbled in the West because white churches have lost so many of their own.
Sure, the odd contemporary evangelical church may buck the trend. Ethnic churches, particularly black and Hispanic evangelicals, are not experiencing the same level of losses either. Nonetheless, as a whole, Christianity is declining because as a whole religious affiliation in North America is down.
Amidst this slow exodus, the church has done little to re-orient itself to function in a new culture.
Christendom permitted the church to sit on its inherited privilege and wait for the world to come to it. That world is almost gone.
Today, the majority in North America are not religious adherents. That means when given the choice they would say they aren’t religious and don’t participate in any routine religious service. That does not mean, however, they have no affinity with religion. This is a crucial distinction.
Pick any sociologist or pollster following religious trends.(I’m thinking of Reginald Bibby’s latest book, “Resilient Gods”, but you can reference your favorite and find similar results.) The numbers are on average the same. Roughly 20% of people attend some form of a religious service at least once a month. They are the religiously affiliated. 70 years ago this number was closer to 60%.
About 25% (and growing) are the religious “nones” who claim no religious affiliation at all.
That leaves 55% of people who fall into the the “dones” category. Dones may claim religious affiliation in name, but in practice they have left.
Here’s a critical observation about the dones and the nones. Very few are antagonistic to faith. There is a very small minority of atheists that largely remains unchanged year over year (in Canada, about 5% or just under the number of self-identifying evangelicals). The rest, however, are neutral. Those dones even have prior religious connections as well. What does this mean?
The religious nones and dones comprise about 80% of the population. About 5% are atheists, which leaves 75% with little to no religious affiliation. They are, however, largely spiritual but not religious, and open to the possibilities of faith.
While lamenting lost power and privilege, an opportunity has emerged. To use business terminology, the nones and the dones are a HUGE untapped market segment. How will your church respond? This is where we have a disconnect.
The ways the contemporary church functions is lost in translation with the unaffiliated. What we “do” works to attract Christians, but is culturally irrelevant to the dones and nones. That means our response isn’t re-tuning the Sunday service to appease new market trends. The changes must be deeper.
I believe approaching the new opportunity of the religious unaffiliated will take a re-orientation of how the church approaches mission. We need churches willing to do heavy contextualization work to learn how to connect with people in a rapidly changing world. Those people, by the way, don’t often look like the people we find in the contemporary church.
Put it this way, churches are largely incompetent when it comes to connecting with people who are different than them. It’s why white churches (majority churches) only have white people and white leadership. It’s why ethnic churches are even more closed than white churches. Yet the religiously unaffiliated are seeking answers to life’s questions. Since they are unlikely to seek out a church service, it will be all up to the sent church (people) living out the gospel in their place and space. Deep relationships have the greatest appeal to the human heart. Not 45 minute sermons.