Both of my readers know my personal affection for numbers. The accountant in me keeps re-surfacing, especially when important research hits the news. This week's release of take two of the Pew Research Center data on religion and public life in America is the latest occasion.
So, every blogger and social commentator will study and interpret this massive survey. Pew's headline, however, indicates their summary of the stats: Modest Drop in Overall Rates of Belief and Practice, but Religiously Affiliated Americans Are as Observant as Before. The latest survey information, released November 3, 2015, is a follow-up of their initial findings released May 12, 2015. The first report in May revealed that the percentage of Christians in the American population has decreased from 75.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. The number of people who indicated "none" as their religious preference increased from 16.1% in 2007 to 22.8% in 2014. Of those associating with Christian denominations, those who identify as Baptists also declined, from 41% to 36%. And, of course, there are layers and layers of findings. The most positive elements in this latest take on the survey data is the note that people openly affiliated with faith are strong. If you would like to review the report, please click right here.
Identifying the response groups in the research world is an important element. For my purposes, three groups are important:
Convictional Christians: those who seek to establish their values and lifestyles
according to their Christian beliefs and doctrine.
Nominal Christians: those who are Christian in name only and do not seek
values or lifestyles according to accepted mainline Christian beliefs or doctrine.
Nones: those who are unaffiliated and hold no faith orientation.
Some commentators have mentioned the transfer of nominal Christians to the none category as representative of many of the declines. The Pew researchers discovered an increase in the numbers of individuals who are very serious in their faith and slight growth in the number of people who pray every day and even study Scripture on a regular basis. But, even these aspects of the study are no reason for celebration. You see, the nones and the nominals represent the people Jesus commissioned us to reach and disciple with the redemptive love of Christ. If these groups, who attend church irregularly or rarely, totally distance themselves from church and convictional Christians, the fortress church that we've so dreaded would be the norm in an increasingly secular America.
Engaging nones and nominal Christians may present our greatest challenge. Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, writing @ tomrainer.com on November 3, 2012, suggested another starting place in reversing the declining trends, evident even three years ago. He mentioned a third group of church people, the nomads, who were church members but were wandering from a high level of church commitment to a lower level. He proposed a thesis, unsupported at the time by research, that the best starting place in changing the religious profile of the nation would be an appeal to church members for more evidence of convictional faith.
I am thankful for and applaud churches that effectively engage the nominals and the nones. Finish. Period. doesn't have a research department and I can't provide data on how that is best done. But, there have been a few successes in this category and I'll mention them briefly. Our most successful ministries in reaching beyond the convictional Christian circles have been---
1. Establishment of a community counseling center with LPC counselors.
2. A strong and vigorously promoted Celebrate Recovery ministry.
3. Community seminars and teaching sessions on important current issues.
4. Community children's events and outdoor activities.
5. Organized gospel centered sports.
6. Cross cultural and community relief ministries.
7. School partnerships and strategic student improvement activities.
8. Seasonal celebrations and presentations.
9. A healthy motorcycle training and discipleship ministry.
10. A strong and evangelistic women's ministry.
And, of course, there are many more. The growth of the none and nominal categories and their detachment from church and convictional Christians is an opportunity for us as well. Every day the words Paul wrote to Timothy give me encouragement for the mission in these times---
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living
and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready
in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete
patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound
teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to
suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and
wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do
the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
2 Timothy 4:1-5, ESV