Historically, the number of individuals who say they have no religious affiliation in America ranges between 5-10%, but a new poll conducted by Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) and the Pew Forum on Faith in Public Life shows the "nones" is skyrocketing to 30-40% among Generation X and Y. At first glance this would seem like a disturbing trend, at least for those who care about the church and evangelism, but Putnam believes the opposite may be true. The declining trend in religious affiliation could in fact provide an opportunity for a revival of faith in America. In other words, as the Religious Right declines and American civil religion dies, there is room for something new to arise out of the ashes.
According to ABC News, Putnam makes clear that the majority of the "nones" are not atheist. In fact, he says, "Many of them are people who would otherwise be in church." He continues, "They have the same attitudes and values as people who are in church, but they grew up in a period in which being religious meant being politically conservative, especially on social issues." Young people are rejecting the overly politicized religion of their childhood and what they see as an increasingly corrupt institutional church -- not God. Putnam sees an opportunity for the church. "Jesus said, 'Be fishers of men,' and there's this pool with a lot of fish in it and no fishermen right now."
It is becoming increasingly clear that young people are tired of a religion that stays silent on the great issues of our day, issues such as the environment, poverty, and education, but they are energized by a faith that leads to social action. Last week at Sojourners' Mobilization to End Poverty, a young man approached a staff member to tell a familiar story. He grew up in a conservative church, left the faith because he could not believe in the God of his childhood, and then, one night, he heard Jim Wallis speak. Jim shared the gospel of a God who cares for the poor and the marginalized of the world and of a God who calls us to do the same. That night, he returned to Christ.
In social settings, I am often asked to explain where I work. At first, when they hear I work for a religious organization they start looking for someone else to talk with, but as I continue to explain our work you can see the spark in their eye and they'll almost always reply, "Tell me more. I'm not a person of faith/I left the faith, but I like the sound of this."
However, I see time and time again that young people are not interested in a watered-down faith that simply does good work or a faith that replaces the Religious Right with the Religious Left. Young people are attracted to an authentic faith in Jesus, grounded in scripture that leads to social action. A friend of Sojourners tells the story of growing up in a home that taught social justice, but not knowing why she should get out of bed for church. Then, during the midst of a struggle for racial justice in a small Texas town, a group of activists -- who had been ostracized from local churches for shaking up the social order -- began to sing, pray, and read scripture together. It was the worshipping community, she says, that gave them the strength to continue. She had a reason to get out of bed on Sunday. In my opinion, the church must learn to weave together social action, evangelism, a commitment to scripture, and a worshipping community if it is going to attract the growing number of "nones." In the midst of what appears to be depressing news for religious folk, I am hopeful and believe that God is doing a new thing.
Kevin Lum is the national church and outreach coordinator at Sojourners.