The Other Pew Poll - 1 in 5 Americans Now "Unaffiliated" With Religion

While the Pew poll on the Presidential election is getting most of the recent headlines, there is another Pew poll that came out this week on religion in American that is more significant. 

According to the Pew Research Center, one in five American adults — nearly 20 percent of the US population — now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentage ever in Pew’s polling. 

This is a 25% increase in just the last five years.

As a pastor and leader of a religious organization this poll got my attention but it doesn't shock or surprise me, rather it confirms what I have experienced and observed in my 15 years of ordained ministry. More and more people are just not that into religion. The Christian church in North America used to function under the assumption that people wanted to be involved in a church, and if they weren't currently affiliated, they were actively engaged in looking to be affiliated. Those days are gone. 

I did a funeral yesterday for a 95-year-old saint of the church. As his widow described it, when they moved to Millwood 53 years ago, "Everybody went to Millwood Presbyterian Church," so that's where they went. In the conversations after the service with people from that generation, there was both a wistful remembrance of the deep friendships and strong community connections that were forged at the church in those years, but also a frank recognition that things have changed dramatically. The Pew survey confirms what they intuitively understand, "everybody" doesn't go to church anymore.

Of the roughly 20% who are unaffiliated with a particular religion, most are not looking to find their sacred niche.

The vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans are not actively seeking to find a church or other religious group to join.  Of those who describe themselves as “nothing in particular” (as opposed to atheist or agnostic), 88 percent say they are not looking for a religion that is right for them.

If you're not already a little disoriented by this news, check this out. Most of these comfortably unaffiliated folks still believe in God:

Two-thirds (68 percent) of those who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated say they believe in God or a universal spirit.  More than half (58 percent) say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth, and more than a third (37 percent) describe themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.”

Anytime someone says "I'm just not into you," it's natural to ask, "Is it you or is it me?" Is this a problem with religious institutions or is it a problem with the people who are opting out?

Some of my ecclesiastical friends are pinning the blame on the growing ranks of the unaffiliated. Pastor Lillian Daniel's critique of the spiritually-but-not-religious crowd is probably the most prominent example of this approach. She writes:

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo....Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.

Her critique has hit such a cathartic chord that it is on tap to become a book in 2013. As much as I appreciate Lillian, and as much as I like to bemoan the shallow, self-indulgent ethos of our culture, I don't think this is a helpful posture for leaders in the church who want to engage these current realities. It has an air of superiority to it that is likely to push even more from the ranks of the religious membership rolls.

Just imagine the billboards for the marketing campaign that national denominational offices can roll out in support of this approach: "Do you consider yourself spiritual but not religious? What a loser." or "Are you unaffiliated with a religious institution? Good! We don't want shallow, self-centered people anyway."

Instead of pointing fingers at those who are leaving, we in the church need to listen to what they are saying. There is a legitimate critique that church leaders need to grapple with if we are going to have some relevance in the future. The unaffiliated in the survey put it like this:

Overwhelmingly, they [the non-affiliated] think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics...

No wonder us religious folk are inclined to diminish this trend and the people who are a part of it. It's hard to look that critique in the face and not blush. 

There are some glimmers of hope for religious institutions in the midst of the growing exodus:

More than three-quarters (77 percent) say religious institutions play an important role in helping the poor and needy and bring people together and strengthen community bonds (78 percent).

These are challenging times for religious organizations like the Presbyterian church I am a part of, but also times of opportunity for innovation and change. Instead of dismissing this news I hope our congregation will respond with humility to listen and the courage to adapt and change.