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 

Thursday, May 14, 2015


I generally reply to everything… and if I don’t, I at least feel guilty about it. I’m not motivated by guilt about many things, but my habit of replying to emails, voicemails, texts and such, is driven by the nagging guilt that would otherwise haunt me.

I know that not everyone is driven the same way… evidenced by the replies I would like to receive but would grow old waiting for from friends, family, and colleagues (and, especially, sons).

I’ve noticed that I’m more compelled to respond to some categories than others. On one end of the scale is my wife Laurie; regardless of the medium, she will always get a reply ASAP. On the other end of the scale are strangers wanting to sell me something; I’ve never felt compelled to return a call or message from an unsolicited salesperson.

When it comes to the medium, I think some carry more of an expectation of a reply than others. When coming from someone I know, I think an email or a voicemail demands a reply… but I think replies are optional when it comes to text messages, or any other direct messages via Facebook, Twitter, or other social media.

I think I have irritated a few folks with this policy, especially when it comes to texts. I think of texts as a personal, in-the-moment medium (not synchronous, not asynchronous… near synchronous), so if I either can’t or don’t want to reply immediately, I generally don’t; I rarely bother reading or responding to texts that are more than 5 minutes old. I tell people that if they really expect or need a response, then email is a much better option, at least for me.

Am I wrong about that?

To test my position, I put together a quick-and-dirty survey; you can take it yourself on SurveyMonkey here (it generally takes about 90 seconds to complete). It is, of course, not a scientific survey. Mostly because the responses have come from an email I sent to my church friends, and those who saw my post on Facebook and Twitter. So… the responses are mostly from:

  1. My friends... people like me, around my age, with similar experience and worldviews, and 
  2. People who are generally responsive (they went to the trouble to respond to the survey). 

Nevertheless… I was interested in the responses, which included:
  • For people that they know, people say that they always or usually reply 90% of the time to phone/vmail, email, and text. Their inclination to reply to Facebook or Twitter messages lags far behind. 
  • For people that they don’t know, people say that they always or usually reply to phone/vmail, and email 25% of the time, and texts 20% of the time. 
  • People prefer email, by far, for work/school business. Only a few seem to think texts are acceptable for work/school business. Nobody thinks business should be conducted on Facebook or Twitter. 
  • Texts scored very high for communication with friends and family, outscoring phone/vmail by a bit, and other media by a lot.
  • Email is the preferred medium when it comes to detailed questions or updates. Nobody likes text for details, and folk seem to prefer email over phone/vmail when it comes details as well. 
  • When it comes to quick questions, there was a pronounced preference for texts. 

So… I think I can stick with my premise that text is a personal, in-the-moment medium. If I can respond right away, I should. I’m still thinking about whether I should feel obligated to deal with stale texts.

One other observation, I was surprised how email outscored phone/vmail by such a large margin when it came to work/school, detailed questions, and detailed updates. Verbal communication is, of course, important… but it appears that the ability to write continues to be vital… possibly even more vital than ever before.

Take the survey (click here) and build out my data… and, as always, I’d appreciate your feedback.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015


Friends and colleagues have heard me say this from time to time:

I take my work seriously… but I don't take myself too seriously.

Take your work seriously.
Take God very seriously.
But don't take yourself too seriously.

I think that attitude served me well again recently.

I had opportunity to serve my church family last week, the Northwest Ministry Network, as chair of the Resolutions Team. I led a great team of twelve, wrote a bunch of whereas-and-therefore-be-it-resolved statements, walked leaders through our work, and presented the materials to our Network as part of last week’s annual business meeting. Pretty nerdy work... I’m a bit of a governance wonk, so I presided as King of the Nerds. All of our work was passed without amendment. 

I was surprised by how much feedback I received (all positive) in the days that followed. Most expressed appreciation for the competence of our work; all appreciated the presentation. Business like this, changing bylaws and such, can be both dull and tense. Around my presentation of resolution 3 of 8, it seemed like it was time to lighten things up, cutting the tension for a few and shaking up the potential boredom for many. I did not break into a standup comedy routine, or yuk it up too much… I merely applied a few witticisms and lightened my tone.

We came with our bags packed, our work was solid and I knew it well, ready to present the issues and respond to questions. We had taken the work seriously. But I think it was important to balance the seriousness of the work by demonstrating that we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. I think it put people at ease, making ourselves approachable, welcoming comment and even critique; all in all, I think the balance served to build trust.

Humor is a powerful tool… an ingredient like any other. Just the right amount results in something delicious… too much and the cake is ruined. Like I baker, I have learned the hard way more than once, ruining the cake with a haphazard approach, dumping too much humor into the batch. And I’m sure I will end up tossing out a few more cakes down the road. But last week it appears that I baked a pretty good cake.

And don’t worry, I won’t let that bit of success lead me to taking myself too seriously.