Last week the Pew Research Center released an update to its massive 2007 study of the American religious landscape with an equally expansive look at how things have changed over the last seven years.
They found that the “nones” have continued to rise, now representing nearly one out of every four adults, and that Christianity is shrinking, falling from nearly 80 percent of the adult population to barely over 70 percent.
So is the Christian sky falling?
Any informed observer knows the following:
*Christianity is on the rise worldwide, particularly in the global South
*Evangelical Christianity is holding its own in the U.S.
*Christianity remains the world’s largest faith, and the most distant projections to 2050 holds it maintaining that lead (this includes the U.S., with 70 percent currently affirming a Christian faith)
So rumors of Christianity’s death are premature.
Any informed observer also knows the following:
*the rise of the “nones” throughout the West is real and cannot be ignored
*Islam is growing faster than Christianity
*the “squishy center” is shifting away from Christianity, and is changing the American cultural landscape
The last one leave you a bit puzzled?
It’s something I endeavored to explain at the 2015 Church and Culture Conference. It came in partial answer to the question, “What is driving the rise of the “nones?”
Most would just say it’s happening because we live in a post-Christian world. That processes like secularization, privatization and pluralization have taken their toll.
And that’s true.
Secularization means there is less of a supportive context for faith. Privatization has made all things related to faith a private affair, like having a favorite color or food. But most devastating of all has been pluralization, where there are not only multiple faiths and worldviews contending for our attention, but the idea that they are all equally valid, equally true.
But the real power of those forces is its effect on what I’ve been calling the “squishy center,” though the idea itself is not unique to me.
Let’s set up a couple of extremes.
On one end are the hard core secularists, the true card-carrying atheists. The Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, secular humanist, ACLU, Fifty Shades of Grey types.
Let’s say this is 10% of the country. That’s actually quite generous, but let’s make it easy math to demonstrate the dynamic.
On the other end are the hard core believers. The ones who are radically sold out to Jesus. These are the fish-sticker wearing, big-Bible carrying, Christian radio listening, Fox News watching, homeschooling types.
Let’s make that 10%, too, which also might be generous.
In between these two poles you have 80% of the country. They are neither hot nor cold. If they ever considered themselves “Christian,” it was with a small “c.”
They are the “squishy center.”
Secularists Squishy Center Believers
(10%) (80%) (10%)
As the “squishy center,” they move toward whatever is culturally most influential. Whatever way the culture tends to mold, shape or pressure is the shape they tend to be molded, shaped or pressured.
In the past, culture moved them to the right; to the Christian, believing side of things. It was, after all, a Christian culture. But culture has changed. It’s not moving people that way anymore. Most observers would call it “post” Christian. Now, everything in culture is moving people to the left; to the secular disbelieving side of things.
So if you were floating in the 80% in the past, if asked, you would have said you were a Christian. That was the culturally normative thing to say. And you would have gone to church – at least on special days. There was pressure on you if you didn’t.
Polls, of course, reflected such influences.
But now, you say you’re nothing.
Because that’s the culturally normative thing to do.
And you don’t go to church.
Because that’s the culturally normative thing to do.
That’s what I mean by the “squishy center.” And make no mistake; the center is moving left. And as the studies all show, moving rapidly. They simply have no anchor, and that’s where the inexorable tidal drift is taking them. They have little or no theological moorings, adrift through biblical illiteracy and tidal waved through media.
Now that such forces are decisively secular, and with a secular agenda, the center is being radically reshaped.
But here’s where I think I may differ, at least in emphasis, with some other observers. Rather than try to calm everyone down that we’re just losing the largely nominal population of believers – as if that’s not a big deal – I would argue that it is a very big deal.
The nominal population, no matter how it was being shaped, has always been America’s mission field. It’s who Wesley and Whitfield, Moody and Graham, won to Christ. The “squishy center” has always been the evangelistic target.
The real news of late is that it’s become a much tougher target.
Which means that rather than heave a huge sigh of relief that Evangelical faith didn’t lose any ground in terms of percentage points, we must recognize that all that means is we held our own. But “holding our own” isn’t exactly the mission.
And if that’s all that we do, then it won’t be long before those percentage points start to drop, and drop precipitously.
Instead, let this serve as an alarm that it can’t be business as usual.
Let this awaken leaders to engage in deep thinking, resulting in bold action, regarding strategy.
Let this open the eyes of the church regarding the power and direction of culture, and the importance of recapturing our prophetic voice and subversive role.
Let this remind us that the church is not called to be safe, tame, secure, popular, or accepted,
…but to be the church.
If so, then I have it on very good authority not even the gates of hell will be able to withstand its onslaught.
James Emery White
James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker).
James Emery White, “The 2015 Cultural Snapshot: The Seventh Age and the Rise of the Nones,” 2015 Church and Culture Conference, download the mp3.
Pew Research Center, "America's Changing Religious Landscape," May 12, 2015, read online.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.