When the cradle nonreligious go to church

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life studied the lifelong religious membership habits of 3000 people. Most of us in the faith community noticed a growing number of people who move from membership in some religion to non-membership. That growing number of so-called "unaffiliateds" both caught our attention and confirmed our observations.

Most commentators looked at the growing stream of people leaving the churches of their youth and eventually becoming people not connected with any religious tradition at all. Few noticed the ones who grew up nonreligious and joined a church later in life.

Charles M. Blow of the New York Times noticed that hidden in the data is the fact that a number of people who were raised in religion-less households are now members of some religious community. Even the Pew people did not discuss this in their analysis this very much.

Two things are notable: first, is the frequency with which these formerly unaffiliateds change churches in their adult lives. They tend to leave the first church they try at a higher rate than those who raised in religion, but they tend to leave their second and third choices with slightly less frequency.

The second notable thing is that, according to the survey, the reason unaffiliateds join churches is either because their spiritual needs are not being met outside of a church (51%) or that they like the style of worship in their new faith community (49%).

Blow writes in his op-ed piece:

For these newly converted, the nonreligious shtick didn’t stick. There was still a void, and communities of the faithful helped fill it.

While science, logic and reason are on the side of the nonreligious, the cold, hard facts are just so cold and hard. Yes, the evidence for evolution is irrefutable. Yes, there is a plethora of Biblical contradictions. Yes, there is mounting evidence from neuroscientists that suggests that God may be a product of the mind. Yes, yes, yes. But when is the choir going to sing? And when is the picnic? And is my child going to get a part in the holiday play?

As the nonreligious movement picks up steam, it needs do a better job of appealing to the ethereal part of our human exceptionalism — that wondrous, precious part where logic and reason hold little purchase, where love and compassion reign. It’s the part that fears loneliness, craves companionship and needs affirmation and fellowship.

We are more than cells, synapses and sex drives. We are amazing, mysterious creatures
forever in search of something greater than ourselves.

The real news in the survey for us in the Church is that while we have focused our concern on those who leave and those who switch (and rightly so), the movement of formerly non-religious people into communities of faith tells us that on the most basic level that counts the most, what we do and who we are as faithful people addresses spiritual needs in creative and affirming ways. We have something to share, and--surprise!--we have the capacity to share it.

Blow, on the other hand, strikes a note that sounds both familiar and ironic to those of us in the Church who care about evangelism. The data appears to be something of a warning to the "nonreligious movement". (This is a movement and not just a trend?) He calls for the non-religious to ramp up the sense of mystery and act more like, well, a church--with symbols, music, literature, community, ritual and programs that reinforce common beliefs.

So we in the Church, in trying to attract and keep members, tell ourselves to act more worldly.

And the non-religious tell themselves to act more religious and provide what religion provides to keep non-religious people non-religious.

What a country!

Comments (5)

The amazing thing, to me, is that nobody on all the "congregational development" and "evangelism" and "church growth" committees has ever asked me - a person who lived by far the greatest part of my life completely outside the church - why I decided to join and stick.

And yes: "the sense of mystery" and "symbols, music, literature, community, ritual and programs that reinforce common beliefs," and yes: "transcendence" - those were the reasons.

In case anybody was ever curious....

Twelve Step programs connect their member directly to a Higher Power (Power greater than the member as conceived by the member). With me the steps have so accomplished that goal, that I find church less than adequate to affirm my beliefs. The rift widens and twelve steps may be why some of us leave our churches.

For me it was the exact opposite; after spending many years in a Twelve Step program, I joined the Episcopal Church. In fact, the program itself (A.A.) encourages its members to return to their churches and continue their spiritual development.

(Or, of course, to return to their synagogues or mosques or other places of worship....)

Here's another article that bears on this topic: "The Sacred and the Human" - the gist of which is that: "Today's atheist polemics ignore the main insight of the anthropology of religion—that religion is not primarily about God, but about the human need for the sacred."

Now, you can argue that the "human need for the sacred" comes from God, if you wish - but you don't have to.

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