Sunday, May 17, 2015

Demise of Aspirational Chiristians

Perhaps you saw the headlines last week that were based on a study released by the Pew Research Center. Among the headlines were included:

The headlines and short news stories could lead us to a misunderstanding. I doubt that most reporters read the 200 page report released Tuesday… possibly not even the 7 page executive summary.

Basically the report said that in 2007 most Americans described themselves as Christian, and in 2014 most Americans described themselves as Christian. Not really much news there.

With that said, most news reports had it right on a few key points:

  1. The declining numbers were mostly among Catholics and Mainline Protestants, and 
  2. The declining numbers were mostly among young people. 

Christians of my ilk, described as Protestant Evangelicals in the study, pretty much held steady as a portion of the population… moving from 26.3% to 25.4% of the population. Numerically, we actually grew by a few million people in that period… but we are lagging behind population growth.

But when added all together, those who call ourselves Christian dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% now.

It isn’t because people are becoming something else. Muslims, for example, were less than 1% in 2007 and remain less than 1% today. No, the most significant change is among those classified by the Pew Research Center as unaffiliated. This is a matter of the rise of the nones.

It appears that those who might have been considered as nominal Christians, are now just calling themselves “none of the above”… they are self-described nones (not even agnostic or atheist… just none).

Commenting on the Pew study, Ed Stezer puts it this way:

It's helpful to statistically clarify Christianity in the United States into three categories—cultural, congregational, and convictional. The first two categories are nominal Christians—they identify, but do not shape their lives around the Christian faith.

It appears that there is less of an impulse to identify oneself as Christian in the cultural or congregational sense these days; there is less current motivation in our culture to be a nominal (in name only) Christian. This is especially true among Millennials, young people, the culture that identifies strongly with being genuine. Their high value of authenticity and integrity will not allow them to adopt a Christian label if it does not truly represent their beliefs.

For folks like me who are solidly in the camp of convictional Christians, we might not be all that concerned with the decline of nominal Christians. Maybe it is a good thing, since one could conclude that genuine Christianity is being clarified… clear lines are being drawn and people are being called to choose.

But what if we changed the nomenclature just a bit. What if rather than calling the less-than-convictional nominal, we referred to them as aspirational?

In generations past, when people were glad to bear the label Christian while not necessarily being a convictional Christian, it seems that people were still aspirational Christians. They were glad to be part of a Christian culture. They were glad to have our collective values and morals grounded in Christian faith, even if that faith was the faith of others.

But today’s nones are making a statement; they are no longer ambivalent, but rather are saying no to Christianity. They appear to be determining that there is a better place to root our culture’s values and morals.

And if that is not a significant enough shift in cultural thinking, consider this: it appears that many Christians agree with the nones. Lots of Christians agree that our culture should find our values and morals in foundations other than our faith… such as humanism, science, or economics.

The erosion of nominal Christianity doesn’t concern me much… but the erosion of aspirational Christianity seems to be another significant symptom of a crumbling culture.

The above was adapted from a message I brought to Pleasant Bay Church this morning. It is part of our current series (Jesus said what?), this sermon from Luke 21 where Jesus said "everyone will hate you." You can hear it at 

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