Pastor Note #63 — Mission Field America
Recently, I read about a church that had a sign at the exit from its parking lot, a sign that people read as they were leaving the church. The sign said, “You are now entering the mission field.” It’s a bracing thought and one that is more and more obviously true in North America.
American Christians in the past have tended to think of the mission field as being “over there,” as being some place other than where we live. We’ve thought that way because we have tended to believe that American society was pretty completely Christianized. Of course, we have always recognized that there were individual Americans who needed to hear and respond to the gospel – maybe even a lot of individuals who needed that. But we tended to think that most Americans knew the general outlines of the Christian faith and that most Americans shared generally the same moral convictions.
It may be that fifty years ago, when I was a kid, those assumptions about American religious culture were generally true. But today it is most certainly not true that we live in a generally Christianized culture. We can no longer assume that most of our neighbors know much of anything about the content of the Bible. Neither can we assume that a large part of American society makes ethical decisions using Christian moral principles.
By saying these things, I am not saying that our increasingly non-Christian neighbors are terrible people. But I am saying that more and more our neighbors are approaching life from a very different worldview than biblically-oriented Christians do. The Bible and the traditional Christian perspective on life have less and less influence over how most of our neighbors approach life and how they decide what is important, valuable, desirable, or good.
The Pew Research Center, a widely respected and trusted social research organization, has just put out a large report on new research into the state of religious belief in America. I’ve only just begun to study through their findings, but I’ll share with you a few of the more significant points.
In 2007, a little over 78% of Americans claimed to be some sort of Christian. By 2014, that percentage had dropped to a little more than 70% of Americans claiming to be Christians. That seems to me and most observers to be a pretty significant change in seven years.
If you think this big change was cause by a big influx of non-Christian immigrants into the United States, you would be wrong. Americans who practice non-Christian religions (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) increased by only slightly more than 1% between 2007 and 2014. And it is probably true that most of this minor growth in non-Christian Americans came about through immigration and not through the conversion of American Christians to non-Christian religions.
So, where are all those formerly Christian Americans going? They are being replaced by “nones.” What are “nones”? “Nones” are people who say that they have no religious affiliation at all. They are atheists, agnostics, or just non-religious people. Between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of our neighbors who claim to have no religious beliefs increased from 16% of the population to almost 23%. That’s an increase of almost 7% and nearly matches the decrease in the number of Americans who claim to be Christians during the same period of time.
If we look a little closer at the data about the “nones,” we find that more than a third (35%) of all Americans born between 1981 and 1996 (18-35 year olds) claim to have no religious affiliation. Think about that. These are the people raising young children, and so this statistic suggests that more than a third of all children in America today are being raised with no religious affiliation at all. These are not families that rarely go to church. These are families that never go to church. The children in such families will know little more Jesus than they will know about Muhammad or the Buddha.
So, the “nones” account for about 23% of all Americans today. Now, let’s go back to the 71% who claim to be Christians. Let me say this carefully. I do not mean to judge anyone’s heart. But let’s be honest, a good many of those 71% of Americans who claim to be Christians never or almost never go to worship on a Sunday. They are not active in any way in any church, and many are not actually members in any Christian church. They rarely or never read the Bible and know almost nothing about what is in it. But if a surveyor asks them what religion they are, they will say “Christian,” because they might have gone to church once in a while as a kid, and maybe their mother or grandfather still goes to some church. So, when answering a question on a survey or a census form, they say that they are Christians. What else would they say?
Such people are what we generally call nominal Christians – Christians in name only. They know little or nothing about what the Christian faith teaches. They know little or nothing about what’s in the Bible. They make life decisions without any real thought as to what Jesus might think about their actions. For all practical purposes nominal Christians are “nones” who haven’t yet gotten around to removing the “Christian” label from their lives.
So, how many of those 71% of Americans who claim to be Christians are in fact nominal Christians? Well, that’s hard to quantify. “Nominal Christian” is not an exact category. But here are a few more statistics. The Pew organization has estimated that on any given Sunday about 39% of Americans are in church. Gallup and Barna, two other large social research organization, come up with similar figures. So, the general consensus is that on any given Sunday a little more than half of all American Christians go to worship. A certain portion of those people who are in church on any given Sunday may only attend church once a month or less. How many of the 71% of Americans who claim to be Christians actually attend church weekly? I haven’t found any convincing statistics for that. But some researchers estimate that maybe something like 20% of all Americans attend church on a weekly basis.
So, let’s put it all together. The U. S. Census Bureau estimates that there are currently about 321 million Americans. That means that about 93 million claim not to be Christians. On any given Sunday, 196 million Americans are not in church. And by some estimates 257 million Americans never, ever go into a church or do so only very rarely.
257 million out of 321 million people – yeah, that sounds like a mission field to me.
©2015 Gary A. Chorpenning