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Are Young Americans "Losing Their Religion"?

  • Mike Pohlman's Blog
  • Updated May 06, 2009

Was R.E.M's 1991 single "Losing My Religion" a harbinger of today's religious landscape?

The ABC News headline reads, "Young Americans Losing Their Religion." But the article, based on research done by Harvard professor Robert Putnam (author of Bowling Alone), misses the more important point of Putnam's research. And by doing so buries the real lede.

First, here's how the article opens--full of doom and gloom for the future of religion in America:

New research shows young Americans are dramatically less likely to go to church -- or to participate in any form of organized religion -- than their parents and grandparents.

"It's a huge change," says Harvard University professor Robert Putnam, who conducted the research.

Historically, the percentage of Americans who said they had no religious affiliation (pollsters refer to this group as the "nones") has been very small -- hovering between 5 percent and 10 percent. However, Putnam says the percentage of "nones" has now skyrocketed to between 30 percent and 40 percent among younger Americans.

Putnam calls this a "stunning development." He gave reporters a first glimpse of his data Tuesday at a conference on religion organized by the Pew Forum on Faith in Public Life.

The numbers look daunting and leave little hope that the church will be anything but a ghost town in the not-so-distant future.

But beyond the opening paragraphs the reader sees that all is not lost for the American church. In fact, there is a tremendous opportunity to "convert" these "nones" from non-church members to vital participants in organized religion. Notice the article's conclusion:

Given that today's young "nones" probably would be in church if they didn't associate religion with far-right political views, he says, new faith groups may evolve to serve them.

"Jesus said, 'Be fishers of men,'" says Putnam, "and there's this pool with a lot of fish in it and no fishermen right now."

In the end, he says, this "stunning" trend of young people becoming less religious could lead to America's next great burst of religious innovation.

Apparently Putnam's research (the basis of his forthcoming book, American Grace) demonstrates that what turns today's young people away from the church is the association of organized religion with politics. In other words, it's not God young people reject, but a political gospel. And in America today there is good evidence to believe that the church is awakening to this important reality.

Evangelical groups are sprouting up to help return the church to a gospel-centered focus. Theology, not politics, is what's driving growing ministries like Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition and 9Marks Ministries, to name a few. Christian publishers are heeding the message as well. Book houses like Crossway, Multnomah, Moody and IVP are churning out solid books on theology, doctrine, church history and ministry methods centered on the gospel. Indeed, a popular topic in books today--started by David Wells in the 1990s--is the necessity of the church to foresake worldliness and move toward a God-centered, counter-cultural lifestyle (see, for example, Tullian Tchividjian's Unfashionable, G.K. Beale's We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry and Michael Horton's Christless Christianity and forthcoming The Gospel Driven Life). Add to this the fact that some of America's fastest growing churches are robustly theological and gospel-centered (see, for example, Bethlehem Baptist Church, Redeemer Presbyterian, Mars Hill Church, The Village Church and CrossWay Community Church). 

In other words, it appears that "America's next great burst of religious innovation" is already happening. And, refreshingly, this "innovation"--while using new methods and means--is taking us back to theological first things.

So, may I suggest a new headline. Something like, "With Return to the Gospel, American Church Ready for Revival."  

[Update: Two complimentary books that have me thinking about this issue, and leaving me hopeful, are God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World and Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.]