Earlier this month the Public Religion Research Institute released new statistics that chronicle the demographic shifts in religious affiliation. The one group that has grown exponentially is the so-called "Nones," or religiously unaffiliated. The unaffiliated now represent 25% of the country, up over 10% of their numbers in the 1990s.
More troubling for churches are two other findings: One is that the percentage of young American "Nones" (39% of those ages 18 to 29) is far larger than that of older American "Nones" (13% of adults, 65 and older). The other is the extent to which those numbers have been fed by younger adults who once attended church with their parents.
The report observes:
Most Americans who leave their childhood religious identity to become unaffiliated generally do so before they reach their 18th birthday. More than six in ten (62%) religiously unaffiliated Americans who were raised in a religion say they abandoned their childhood religion before they turned 18. About three in ten (28%) say they were between the ages of 18 and 29. Only five percent say they stopped identifying with their childhood religion between the ages of 30 and 49, and just two percent say age 50 or older.
The top two reasons that young adults list for leaving the church is that "they stopped believing in the religion's teachings (60%)" and their families were "never that religious when they were growing up (32%)." The report does not explain in explicit terms why young adults drifted away from their religion's teachings or what left them with the impression that their families were never all that religious, but the rest of the report is suggestive.
The vast majority of "Nones" grew up in families parented by adults who lacked unanimity in their religious commitments. 66% of the "Nones" reject the conviction that religion provides a foundation for the moral formation of children. 72% of the unaffiliated say that they give little or no regular thought to their beliefs about God. Close to two thirds of them believe that religion does more harm than good, and more than three quarters of them believe that there is no necessary connection between a belief in God and their own moral decision-making.
There is a great to digest here, but it is hard not to conclude that a great deal of the church's fortunes in this regard has been in our own hands all along:
We have failed to take the spiritual formation of children and adolescents seriously.
We have not stressed the importance of faith formation in our families, nor have we helped them think in a concerted fashion about how that might be done.
We have neglected our own formation and the task of examining the relationship between what we believe and the way in which we live our lives.
And, quite simply, we haven't offered our children convincing reasons for our participation in the life of the church, which - of course - would have only been convincing if they had shaped our own participation.
One can only speculate about the reasons for our failure, but it isn't hard to guess.
Our fear of being thought of as fundamentalist has kept us from thinking about what it means to be serious about our faith. Our love of civic respectability and importance has prompted us to downplay the particularity of the demands that the Gospel makes upon us. In the absence of faith formation, we have opted instead for "good politics," which signals how little our faith has to say about our politics or about anything else we do. And, quite simply, we have been lazy about rearing our children in the faith - at church and at home - neglecting our responsibilities as parents and as religious leaders.
We had our reasons, of course. We were at sea about parental and religious authority. We projected adult prerogatives on children, arguing that they should make their own decisions about their faith long before they were capable of making those decisions.
What we didn't confront was a simple truth: We teach by omission, just as surely as we do by guiding our children. In the absence of any other guidance, our children have found their mentors in the culture around them.
What we are witnessing is simply the fruit of our choices.