by Craig Cable
The Pew Research Center recently released a demographic study titled America’s Changing Religious Landscape that caused quite a stir in the media and with church-trend watchers. In the course of interviewing 35,000 Americans over the age of 18, Pew discovered that the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4 percent in a similar survey in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. This sizable exodus from organized religion was driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants (dropping 3.4 percent) and Catholics (dropping 3.1 percent). The religious group that saw the smallest decline was evangelical Protestants, which saw a 1 percent reduction. Survey respondents who self-identified as having “no religious affiliation” actually saw the greatest change, with a 6.7 percent increase.
Within hours of the release of these findings, the web blew up with all sorts of perspectives and spins on the data. Some people were simply trying to make sense of what may be causing church attendance to decline at such an unprecedented rate. Others (mostly in evangelical protestant circles) were actually boasting that their denominations saw the fewest number of people leaving. What was most concerning to me was that some church insiders appeared to be celebrating the decline. These people have concluded that those who no longer identify as Christians were only posing as Christians in the first place and the church is well rid of them.
According to the latest U.S. Census, there are more than 244 million Americans over the age of 18. So if 8 percent of them are turning their backs on Christianity, that means that nearly 20 million men and women have left the faith—just in the last seven years.
In addition to those who no longer identify themselves as Christians are those who have walked away from the church even though their faith is as vibrant as ever.
Group just released a groundbreaking book called Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are DONE With Church but Not Their Faith (also available on Amazon). In this exhaustive qualitative study, Dr. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope found that the people who say they’re done with church aren’t who you’d expect.
- They’re among the church’s staunchest supporters and leaders.
- They aren’t marginal Christians, and they aren’t abandoning their faith.
- And they aren’t anti-church. In fact, these people remain hungry for community and long to grow in their faith and a chance to serve.
As I was scratching my head, wondering who in the world would attempt to put a positive spin on any of this, the Parable of the Lost Sheep came to mind.
In Luke 15, Jesus said: Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
I pray each day for my heart to break over the things that cause God’s heart to break. I can’t help but feel that God’s heart grieves for every person who has taken a step away from him. And I feel compelled to do everything I can to find these people and welcome them back into God’s family.
Rather than saying, “good riddance,” I challenge every ministry leader not to accuse, attack, or demean those who have left our churches. Rather, seek to understand why they left and explore ways to keep the relationships intact. Let’s pursue everyone with the same love, tenderness, and relentless affection that God pursues all of his sheep…lost or found.