It’s Worse Than We Thought
It’s no secret the religious landscape in America has shifted. Fewer and fewer Americans are self-identifying as Christians, while more and more are identifying as religiously unaffiliated. As you’ve heard by now, this group has been nicknamed the “nones” because they checked “none of the above” on religious affiliation surveys. According to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, nearly one quarter of Americans claim no religious affiliation, representing a 7-point jump in just seven years. Young Americans are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than older Americans with millennials comprising 44 percent of the nones. Millennial nones are walking away from the faith they grew up with, the faith of their parents, in record numbers.1 Surveys, podcasts and blogs leave one with the distinct impression that the version of faith this generation grew up with left them unprepared for the rigors and questions of academia and adulthood. This is especially true for those who pursue education beyond high school. The dechurched who grew up in church exit because they find the version of Christianity they’ve grown up with unconvincing, uninspiring and irrelevant.
It’s important to recognize that millennials don’t perceive their understanding of Christianity as a version of anything. For them, their version is the only version. The version of Christianity they were raised on is Christianity. More and more find their version of faith ill-suited for the undeniable realities, both scientific and sociological, of the world in which they find themselves. If we’re going to reach the unchurched, underchurched, dechurched, and postchurched with the gospel in a culture that’s trending post-Christian, we must rethink our approach. Changing times call for changing approaches in order to accomplish our unchanging mission of making disciples.
But first another word or two about those looking for the back door.
According to the 2014 Religious Landscape Study referenced earlier, nones represent nearly 23 percent of Americans. Think about that … 23 percent. That’s just under 56 million people. Chances are, you are related to a none or two. You certainly know a few. You’ve baptized some. You probably drove a few to camp. You gave some current nones their first Bibles. You know their parents—their heartbroken, disappointed, frightened parents.
We’ve been told for decades that we live in a postmodern culture. While we struggle to define the term itself, few of us would disagree with the assessment. And if we’re honest, even fewer of us have adjusted our ministry approaches to compensate for this reality. But here’s something we can all get our heads around. We are now a post-Christian culture. One distinctive feature of postmodernism is its rejection of uniformitarianism, the insistence that there is only one right way of thinking and behaving.2 Post-Christian takes that to a frightening new level. Former National Review editor John O’Sullivan provides the following helpful definition of post-Christianity:
A post-Christian society is not merely a society in which agnosticism or atheism is the prevailing fundamental belief. It is a society rooted in the history, culture, and practices of Christianity but in which the religious beliefs of Christianity have been either rejected or, worse, forgotten.3
There is an important distinction between a non-Christian and a post-Christian. The reason our evangelistic endeavors result in more recycling than actual conversion is that our methods and approaches assume non-Christian rather than post-Christian.
That must change.
In a non-Christian society, people may have never heard anything about Christianity and, therefore, have few to no preconceived notions. A post-Christian society is the opposite. In a post-Christian society, people have been exposed to Christianity (in our case, for generations) but are opting out for a different worldview, a different narrative through which to make sense of the world. In a post-Christian society, people know the stories; they just don’t believe ‘em. Or in many cases, they don’t believe ‘em anymore.
The Barna group has developed a metric for identifying a post-Christian. This metric is based on stated beliefs and practices, such as belief or disbelief in God, church attendance, spiritual practices, etc. As it turns out, more and more Americans who identify as Christians qualify as post-Christians based on their actual behaviors. According to the Barna Group, 48 percent of Americans qualify as “post-Christian”4 … 48 percent! Bottom line: Many, perhaps most of the nones in America have had some connection to Christianity in their pasts but have rejected it. They are not non-Christians in the way we are accustomed to thinking about non-Christians. They are post-Christian. That’s a whole nother thing. This group has been there, done that, and has a closetful of camp T-shirts to show for it. This presents a unique challenge for us in terms of apologetics and evangelism. It requires a new approach.
The approach I’ll unpack in the remainder of this article is neither new nor original. As I will attempt to demonstrate, it’s modeled on the preaching of the earliest Christian evangelists—the ones who turned the world upside down and who against all odds fueled a movement that captured the attention and, ultimately, the participation of the pagan world both inside and outside the Roman Empire.
Maybe we should do that again.
The Bible Tells Me So
For post-Christians, common sense, science, philosophy and reason are the go-tos for worldviews and decision-making. Post-Christian nones have a low tolerance for faith-based answers to fact-based questions. At the same time, like most of us, they aren’t exactly on a truth quest either. They’re on a happiness quest. Many walked away from faith because faith didn’t make them happy. That’s never a presenting reason. Nobody wants to appear that shallow. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find the quest for happiness plays a big role. When faith is viewed as an impediment to happiness, goodbye faith. The seemingly irrational, anti-science version of faith many were brought up on makes it that much easier to simply walk away. Given all of that, this next statistic should not come as any surprise. When asked about their views of Scripture, 72 percent of nones said that it is not the Word of God. This data is corroborated by data compiled in a massive study conducted by the Barna Group.
From 2011 to 2016, the Barna Group, in collaboration with the American Bible Society, collected, tracked and analyzed Americans’ perceptions of and engagement with the Bible. They released their findings in the book The Bible in America: The Changing Landscape of Bible Perceptions and Engagement.5 In the introduction, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, outlines the most significant trends from the six-year study. First and foremost, “increased skepticism.” The following quote is a bit long, but it’s extraordinarily important. In fact, if you want to stir up your next staff or elders meeting, just pass out copies of the following:
More people have more questions about the origins, relevance and authority of the Scriptures … the steady rise of skepticism is creating a cultural atmosphere that is becoming unfriendly—sometimes even hostile—to claims of faith. In a society that venerates science and rationalism, it is an increasingly hard pill to swallow that an eclectic assortment of ancient stories, poems, sermons, prophecies, and letters, written and compiled over the course of 3,000 years, is somehow the sacred “Word of God.” Even in just the few years Barna has been conducting “State of the Bible” interviews, the data is trending toward Bible skepticism. With each passing year, the percentage of Americans who believe that the Bible is “just another book written by men” increases. So too does the perception that the Bible is actually harmful and that people who live by its principles are religious extremists.6
In 2011, 10 percent of Americans qualified as skeptics when it came to the Bible. In 2016, just six years later, that number had more than doubled. Doubled! Currently, 22 percent of Americans do not believe the Bible has any divine underpinnings.7 But the current percentage is not the real story. The real story is the current rate at which culture is dismissing the Bible as uninspired, untrue and irrelevant.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Twenty-seven percent of millennial non-Christians believe “the Bible is a dangerous book of religious dogma used for centuries to oppress people.”8 Journalists, scientists and scholars—the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens—have provided plenty of one-sided commentary to support that narrative. Download and read Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation and ask yourself how well a 20-something-year-old, Sunday-school educated, college student’s faith would stand up under that kind of barrage.