- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The American people have become slightly less Christian and more “unaffiliated” in the last few years, says a new study that seeks to track even the smallest trends in this major cultural issue.

Some 70 percent of Americans were part of a Christian church in 2014, down from 78 percent in 2007, said the Pew Research Center study, released Tuesday.

Overall, the number of Christians fell from 178 million in 2007 to 173 million in 2014, said the study, which is based on a telephone survey of more than 35,000 adults.

Protestants made up about 46 percent of the U.S. population, followed by Catholics (21 percent), Mormon (under 2 percent), and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodoxy, and “other” Christian groups, which are all under 1 percent. Non-Christian religions such as Judaism, Islam and Hinduism rose from 4.7 percent of the population in 2007 to 5.9 percent in 2014.

Pew’s “really large sample gives us the ability to talk about those groups that are 1 or 2 percent of the population,” noted Jessica Martinez, a research associate at Pew who worked on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” report.

The bulk of the erosion in Christian identification was in mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, with each falling by 3 percentage points, the study said. Evangelical Protestant identification dipped by around 1 percentage point, while historically black churches stayed stable.

“Unaffiliated” people, however, grew in number from about 36.6 million in 2007 to 55.8 million in 2014.

Among this group, the numbers of atheists and agnostics each grew by around 1 percentage point, to comprise 3 percent and 4 percent of the population, respectively.

The largest growth was the number of adults who said they were “nothing in particular.”

This group — which contained a lot of millennial-age adults — rose from 12 percent in 2007 to about 16 percent in 2014,

Within that group, though, there are some who say religious practices and beliefs are important, but they “do not identify with any particular organized religion,” said Ms. Martinez.

The Pew study showed strong generation gaps: Of people born in the “silent generation” (1928-1945), 85 percent said they were Christian and 11 percent were unaffiliated.

Of both millennial groups — those born in 1981-1989 and 1990-1996 — more than half (around 56 percent) said they were Christian, while a solid third (around 35 percent) said they were unaffiliated.

Countless articles and books have been written about America’s slow detachment from weekly worship and other religious activities. Explanations include boredom with the Sunday morning sing-a-longs and sermons, especially when the modern interactive technologies — which are second nature to youth — are not widely used.

Other factors are people having “more choices” for weekend activities — including sports activities for children — paired with much less guilt and shame about not going to worship services.

“Self-directed spirituality” is becoming more common, as is the desire to see “a direct benefit” from taking time to go to church, wrote Pastor Carey Nieuwhof, who leads the Connexus Church near Toronto, Canada, and frequently blogs about church growth and the “massive cultural shift” affecting church membership.

In their 2013 book, “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore: And How 4 Acts of Love Will Make Your Church Irresistible,” Thom and Joani Schultz urged church bodies to focus on building relationships within the faith community. Their “four simple acts of love” are “radical hospitality,” “fearless conversation,” “genuine humility,” and “divine anticipation.”

Still other factors are the delay of marriage and often parenthood in younger generations.

“Marriage and the baby carriage tend to increase Americans’ interest in being actively involved in church,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, associate sociology professor at University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project.

“Another reason,” he added, “is that many young adults see religion as force for reaction — against gay rights, abortion, etc. — and don’t wish to affiliate with a religious tradition they see as out of touch.”

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