By Joe Allison
Last week, the Pew Research Center released the results of a poll of 35,000 people throughout the United States concerning their religious affiliation. They found that the number of people who describe themselves as “Christian” declined by 8 percent since 2007, while those who see themselves as “atheist” or devotees of “nothing in particular” rose by more than 7 percent.
Christian leaders have been wrestling with these numbers, trying to find some good news among the bad. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention thinks the study does not signal a real decline in Christianity but rather greater freedom among atheists and “nones” to admit where they really stand. “We don’t have more atheists in America,” he blogged. “We have more honest atheists in America.”
That sounds plausible, and we’re all in favor of greater honesty when it comes to people’s faith convictions; but other commentators believe the study reflects an important shift in the public’s perception of the church.
Gary Hall, dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., believes the study reveals “the church’s declining credibility as a place for people to pursue their spiritual questions.” In an interview with National Public Radio, he says:
One of the things that the survey says pretty strongly is that the people who are religious continue to have very strong desires to pray, to do important social justice work and community work with people, but they don’t see the church as the place to do that.
Hall’s entire interview is worth a listen. He says the American church needs to make significant change to fulfill its mission as Christ’s Body in this world. We need to encourage candid discussion of faith, build communities of mutual support, and engage people in meaningful community service.
I think one of the things the Pew study suggests to us is that if the church can get over its anxiety about talking about God in a grown-up way, we would actually reach out to and speak to more people than we do right now.
A discipling congregation encourages people “to pursue their spiritual questions” and “talk about God in a grown-up way” because honest talk can lead to genuine change.
A former missionary to Papua New Guinea has this motto hanging on the wall of his office:
Jisas he tok tru.
Indeed He does. So must we. Otherwise people will seek the truth elsewhere.