Friday, May 15, 2015

The Rise of the "Nones"

For the past several years I have told my students that the most interesting development in the religious landscape of the United States is "the rise of the nones," that is, the growing number of adult Americans who claim no religious affiliation. ("The Rise of the Nones" would make a good film title, no?) While "evangelical" Christianity has been maintaining relatively steady numbers over the past couple of decades, both Roman Catholicism and mainstream, "establishment" Protestantism are undergoing decline.

A new Pew report, based on a survey of 35,000 individuals, gives us the latest data for gaining some understanding of these trends. To read that report go here.

The paragraphs that caught my eye were these:
Between 2007 and 2014, the overall size of the U.S. adult population grew by about 18 million people, to nearly 245 million. But the share of adults who identify as Christians fell to just under 71%, or approximately 173 million Americans, a net decline of about 5 million.
This decline is larger than the combined margins of sampling error in the twin surveys conducted seven years apart. Using the margins of error to calculate a probable range of estimates, it appears that the number of Christian adults in the U.S. has shrunk by somewhere between 2.8 million and 7.8 million.
Those who identify themselves as "former Christians" now represent just over 19% of the US adult population.

There is one misleading paragraph in the report:
The new survey indicates that churches in the evangelical Protestant tradition – including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church in America, other evangelical denominations and many nondenominational congregations – now have a total of about 62 million adult adherents. That is an increase of roughly 2 million since 2007, though once the margins of error are taken into account, it is possible that the number of evangelicals may have risen by as many as 5 million or remained essentially unchanged.

That paragraph gives the impression that the LCMS is within that "evangelical" camp (in the American sense of that term, not Luther's) whose numbers have plateaued or shown some increase. Yet a quick check of the LCMS's own statistical reports between 2006 and 2013 (the latest year for which statistics are available) reveals that in every one of those years the Synod had an overall net loss in baptized membership:

2007 -   2,383,084 baptized (representing a loss of 34,913 members in 2006)
2008 -   2,337,349 (a loss of 45,735 in 2007)
2009 -   2,312,111 (a loss of 25,238 in 2008)
2010 -   2,278,586 (a loss of 33,525 in 2009)
2011 -   2,231, 858 (a loss of 46,728 in 2010)
2012 -   2,196,788 (a loss of 35,070 in 2011)
2013 -   2,163,698 (a loss of 33,090 in 2012)

The reasons why Roman Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism are declining in membership in the U.S. may be tied to factors that are unique to these groups and their settings here. The reasons why the Southern Baptist Convention and the LCMS are in decline may be entirely due to other factors. I will leave it to the experts in the sociology of religion to sort out those differences and to debate among themselves the principal causes for these specific declines.

While such reports have to be painted with a broad brush, I suspect the causes for decline vary from one church body to the next. Many people "drop out" of religion for all sorts of reasons. (The report points initially to "generational replacement," i.e., older religiously-affiliated people are dying and being replaced by younger non-religiously-affiliated individuals, but that doesn't really explain why younger people are not participating in religious organizations.)

I have my own hunches, based on limited, anecdotal evidence that I've collected over the years from the dozens of so-called "religiously-unaffiliated" people that have shown up in my required theology courses.

Many of these "nones" were raised in Christian homes and settings, but now no longer consider themselves "Christian." Several have labeled themselves "recovering Christians." Some of these are adamantly against all religions, especially Christianity, for "intellectual" and experiential reasons: "I used to believe in God, but what I know from the sciences and the overwhelming reality of evil in the world--much of it perpetrated by religious people--discounts such belief today." Others of them want nothing to do with "organized religion," but might dabble now and then with "spiritual" matters: "I believe in God, but want nothing to do with organized churches. I got burned by religion... I consider myself 'spiritual' but not 'religious.'" "Lord, I believe! Save me from your people!"

Quite a few "nones" are just unsure if they are "Christian" any longer, since they almost never set foot in a Christian congregation and are unclear about what they really believe regarding God, Jesus, etc. "My wife is Buddhist and I occasionally follow her lead when it comes to meditation or what not, but I don't go to a temple or church..." Still other "nones" just don't give much thought to religious or even "spiritual" questions and issues. For these "nones," time and energy are best devoted elsewhere. "During the week I'm very busy with school and my career and social networks. When the weekend comes around, I want just to relax..." Or: "The weekends were made for [fill in the blank]..., not doing a bunch of stupid religious rituals to a deity who may not even exist..."

The reasons for LCMS decline are also varied and complex, but I will suggest five:

1) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "anti-intellectual," "anti-science." "I used to belong to the LCMS, but its position on six-day creationism is stupid and unsupportable, and so I left..." "I'm a Ph.D. in molecular biology and my pastor told me he would not commune me because I accept the theory of evolution, and so I joined a different church..." "Some LCMS doctrines are simply out of touch with basic scientific facts... I got tired of my pastor's ignorance and his bigotry against science..."

2) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "anti-women." "I grew up in the LCMS, but when I entered college I became dissatisfied with its position against women serving as pastors and in other leadership roles..." "The LCMS is discriminatory toward women and I'm opposed to that kind of behavior... I left the synod for an Evangelical church body that supports the equality of men and women and recognizes the spiritual gifts of women pastors..."

3) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "anti-LGBT." "I grew up in the LCMS and I'm gay. Over time I realized the LCMS was not a welcoming place for me..." "I'm not a lesbian, but I'm opposed to the kind of loveless words and actions toward gay and lesbian people that I have heard from LCMS pulpits and have witnessed in the LCMS over the years..."

4) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "judgmental" toward non-LCMS religious groups. "I was involved in two different LCMS congregations in Iowa and the pastors in both settings regularly preached sermons that were derogatory of other Christians. These pastors came off sounding like Pharisees... I got tired of their public bashing of others..." "I attended an LCMS congregation out in California for a while, but the pastor and many of the people there seemed most concerned to tell others what they were against (e.g., "liberals," gays, lesbians, Roe v. Wade, etc.) and to always pat themselves on the back for being 'the true church of the pure doctrine...' I didn't appreciate their loveless judgmentalism. There was no real Christian love in the place... I joined a non-denominational church as a result..."

5) The LCMS is perceived/experienced as being "the right-wing of the Republican Party at prayer." "I'm not a Republican and as such I didn't feel at home in that particular LCMS congregation..." "I don't agree with the politics of the past several LCMS presidents. On certain political issues, they don't speak for me. I left the LCMS largely for these reasons..."

There are undoubtedly other factors in play here, but for the time being I will continue to collect my own anecdotal evidence for why "the rise of the nones" is occurring. Perhaps this data will cause local pastors and congregations to do some serious self-examination, some sober soul-searching, some substantive reflection on the differences between motes and beams.


  1. Matthew -- The five reasons you gave for the decline of the LCMS are the very same five reasons why I find it so difficult to identify myself as a Pastor of the LCMS these days. Those five emphases were not the identifying marks of the LCMS when I attended seminary in the 1960's the way they are today. I hope you will publish this article on Daystar.
    Paul D. Doellinger

  2. A sixth reason that the LCMS will descend into irrelevancy: Forces within the LCMS, such as many of its leaders, 'Steadfast, Christian News, and AELEC or whatever they call themselves, have the arrogance to think that any that do not meet their definitions of purity have to be forced out.

  3. I’ll offer a simplistic answer.
    As a retired pastor and now mostly a pew sitter, it seems to me that if people with some spiritual sensitivity are hungering for preaching/worship where
    • The hearing of the Word is a kind Shekinah/Epiphany experience. By this I would like to hear
    o Something of a face-to-face with
     With a LORD (I AM WHO I AM = a Hebrew verb implying a personage who is without beginning or end. I think I see this in the “Alpha and Omega” and it’s implied in the ‘lesser Gloria’ = “as it was in the beginning - - - and ever shall be, world without end”) who is utterly out of this world.
     With a LORD whose attitude toward this humanity is “Chesed” (sp?) = a Mercy which is utterly and totally for me and all, regardless of my past. “Agape” may be a tangential related word.
    o When I experience this kind of preaching/worship I find it satisfies a hunger.
    • On those occasions when I’m preaching, it’s my hope that people will have that kind experience where they can say, “We’ve seen the LORD”.

    I realize that maybe this can be misunderstood as being a preacher over-focused on himself; if that happens, I’ve blown it.

    What I can tell you is that in my mostly pew-sitting, I’m not hearing this from very many LCMS pastors, and for that matter not from many others either. In the LCMS, it seems to me that pastors who sat at the feet of Norman Habel, Richard Caemmerer, A. C. Piepkorn, and others. Understand, I graduated from Springfield in 1965, so my contact with St Louis was limited. At Springfield? Allen Nauss, Lorman Peterson, Hank Eggold, Gerhard Aho, Martin Naumann, Curtis Huber (pretty cerebral), Arthur Graf, Henry Boettcher, and yes, occasionally J. A. O. Preus, if you can believe it.
    LCMS pastors who graduated in the sixties/seventies often had a grasp of this kind of communication—though I don’t think a majority of them did. I know this only came to me later in my ministry (I’m 79 years old).

    Exceptions? I’ve never heard Will Willimon, but reading his stuff makes me think that maybe he delivers.
    Others? Will Fields, campus pastor at Iowa State, and later Dick Kapfer, campus pastor at Iowa State. Al Norden, campus pastor at University of Nebraska at Lincoln. There was a campus pastor, Dave Kehret, I think, in Omaha who moved to Valparaiso. Maybe he’s still there
    Another? Theodore P. Gerken (my vicarage supervisor at St John, LaGrange, IL.)
    Another? Walt Wangerin, Jr.! For me, Wangerin’s writing breathes life.
    Another? Frederick Buechner, though he’s pretty cerebral for many hearers.
    Another? Kenneth E. Bailey!
    Another? Marva Dawn has written some stuff which is awesome to me.
    Another? Frederick Niedner, Sr. he was president of the Nebraska District when I came here in ’78.
    Another? Jon Stein (older brother to Dr. David Stein), when he was St John Lutheran, Seward, NE
    I’ve known a few Roman Catholic priests who seem to be able to deliver this kind of spiritual bread; at least they did it for me when I was experiencing spiritual crises of my own.
    Another? Rabbi Earl Grollman—once when I was in a table conversation with him, I thought I had a Messianic Jew in front of me – maybe yes, maybe no. But he understood the importance of an attitude of mercy.
    Anyway—if a church offers this kind of spiritual ‘meat and potatoes’ I think that many in our churches would be coming back. Not all of course. In our generation there is a narcissistic self-centeredness which is difficult to penetrate. Sometimes a trauma can crack that egotism—could be spiritual, physical, sociological, or whatever.
    Maybe I’m wanting TOO MUCH

  4. Of the five reasons you identify as reasons for the numerical decline in the LCMS, I wonder how you would explain the corresponding numerical decline in the ELCA which to some appears as the opposite of the stated indictments. And how does one explain the continued growth in the evangelical churches that in some cases are just as conservative?

  5. I don't believe the insights posted are the only reasons why some people leave the LCMS and I'm sure Dr. Becker would agree. I believe a dissertation would be beneficial on this subject. I took the liberty of posting this blogspot on Reddit under r/Christianity. I believe posting this on reddit may yield interesting discussion and understanding towards this subject.

    1. Your are right - the insights posted are not the only reasons people leave the church, and, my guess is, are probably not the predominant ones either. I believe that for many in the generations following mine (I'm a Baby Boomer), the organized church has become irrelevant in a more secular society. And becoming more openly welcoming of socially accepted lifestyles or embracing scientific advances while abandoning long held beliefs will not rejuvinate the mainline churches, conservative or liberal. The proof is in the overall declline across the board, especially in the more 'progressive' mainline denominations. Dr. Becker's observations are merely anecdotal and reflect the experiences of people he has probably encountered mainly in an academic setting. Experiences outside of that setting are different, such as the rural environment in which I serve. Leaving the LCMS does not mean always leaving for another denomination, and the "nones" largely reflect a society becoming more secular and less religious, regardless of what any given church espouses or teaches. They are leaving the church entirely and in many cases even abandoning a spiritual life itself.

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    3. I've read and reread this reply more than I care to say. It's a bitter pill to swallow. I do not discount the anecdotal evidence given by Dr. Becker nor do I believe this is the only source from which he draws his observations. I do give credibility to your observations of church decline in a rural setting.

      I do believe however that strong elders who train their congregations to practically share God in the workplace or world outside of church with tools such as "Stephen Ministry" can counter these losses. Everyone gets in trouble eventually.