The fastest growing group among religions is known as the 'nones', or those who classify their affiliation as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, the religiously unaffiliated have jumped from 15.3 percent of all U.S. adults in 2007, to 19.6 percent in 2012 which encompasses a population of about 46 million people.
"Is it possible to sustain the church without people that come in and say - 'Hey! I want my name on the roll!'?" asks Dr. Will Willimon, a professor at Duke Divinity School.
The question of sustainability is one facing many churches in America especially now that one out of every five adults has no religious affiliation. Even though thousands of churches open every year, thousands also close their doors.
"If there are that many people saying they're 'unchurched,' that's exactly the people we want to see come through our doors," says Tonia Bendickson, who serves as the outreach director at Elevation Church located in Charlotte, NC.
According to Outreach magazine, Elevation Church is ranked as the second fastest growing church in America.
Elevation Church's website states it "...aggressively reaches out to people who are far from God," and goes on to add, "...we are more concerned with the people we are trying to reach than the people we are trying to keep."
While outreach or evangelizing the 'unchurched' is a focal point for many denominations, there is little evidence that individuals lacking a religion are actually looking for one.
To be specific, 88 percent of those who say their religion is 'nothing in particular' claim they are not actively seeking a religion, according to a Pew Research Center study.
Only 5 percent of the unaffiliated say they attend at least one weekly service, yet 68 percent believe in God, and 21 percent pray daily.
Of those who consider themselves 'spiritual but not religious,' a sizeable 44 percent pray daily, and 92 percent claim to believe in God. Their reasons for not joining a church include concerns over money, power, rules and politics inside an organized religion.
Some of the growth within this group, but not all, can be attributed to generational shifts. A third of adults under age 30 are religiously unaffiliated, compared to 9 percent of those over age 65. Still, more Gen-Xers and Boomers are becoming unaffiliated. The majority of those who consider themselves unaffiliated were raised with some affiliation as a child.
While the unaffiliated span the spectrum of ages, they tend to be relatively younger than the general public. About seven in 10 are under age 50 (versus 56 percent of the public), and 35 percent are between 18 to 29 years old (versus 22 percent of the public).
"[Churches] can attract a new generation, but not without a lot of pain and a lot of risky, bold decisions," Dr. Willimon says. "They cannot do it through sitting around saying - 'Well you know, the kids today, they're just not religious anymore. They're not as dedicated as we were' - that kind of attitude is sure to lead to death."
HollyHunter Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC, is the creation of two churches that were unable to survive on their own dwindling congregations. The former Thomasboro Baptist Church experienced a decrease from 800 active members to about 20, and the former Westside Baptist Church suffered a similar loss in membership. Both congregations merged as HollyHunter Baptist Church and is led by Pastor Tim Nichols.
"By faith we go, week to week," Nichols says.
The book Starting a House Church points out that some churches spend between 82 and 96 percent of their resources to sustain themselves.
To control HollyHunter Baptist Church's operating budget, the leadership decided to cap programming expenses and, instead, focus on ministry. In an effort to grow their membership, they have now added Zumba exercise classes and community fish fries. Nichols, however, worries that community outreach can quickly become costly and, sometimes, cross the lines of scripture.
"What is our purpose as a church? Do we want to attract people, or do we want to have a life-impacting walk with people?" Nichols asks. "The second would be my answer because just as soon as the glitz and glamour of the perfect worship service happens, there's gonna be another perfect service that happens down the street and people will go to that."
The Catholic Church's membership, however, has remained relatively stable, despite the growth of the unaffiliated.
As far as programming and outreach, it appears the Catholic Church is also staying dedicated to its 2,000 years of tradition and extensive membership process.
"I think we are equipping them for being faithful Catholics," notes Susan Krasniewski, director of religious and adult education at St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Charlotte, NC. "Instant membership, I think, can mean instant departure."
In an attempt to redirect the 100,000 baptized Catholics who drift away each year as well as those who are unaffiliated, the organization CatholicsComeHome.org is broadcasting national 'evangomercials.'
Based on statistics by the Controller's Office at the Diocese of Phoenix, for every $1.63 invested in television media, Catholics Come Home was able to lure back one member of its flock bringing them back to the Church.
"I think most people in their 20s and 30s seem to be very free today to explore other avenues - other churches," observes Rev. Frank O'Rourke, pastor of St. Gabriel Catholic Church. "I don't say all of them come back to the Catholic community, but I'd say many of them do."
Meanwhile, Dr. Willimon sees two choices available for churches regarding the unaffiliated. Churches, he says, can either stick to their truth and traditions, or expand their outreach efforts.
"I have great faith for the Church and great faith in the power of Jesus Christ to get what he wants, ultimately," he said. "I know that denominational Christianity, I know that it will be radically different."
So, too, may be the political landscape in America as the unaffiliated grow in numbers.
Nearly 40 percent of unaffiliated registered voters are Democrats and are twice as likely to describe themselves as liberal. The majority also support legal abortion (72 percent) and same-sex marriage (73 percent). Analysts have questioned whether future politicians will have to start campaigning for the unaffiliated vote.
Copyright 2013 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.
The Pew Research Center survey referred to in this story was conducted between June 28 - July 9, 2012, with a representative sample of 2,973 adults. Phone calls, interviews and prior Pew Research Center surveys were used. (Source: http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx).
|71%||nothing in particular|
|18%||consider themselves religious|
|37%||spiritual but not religious|
|42%||neither spiritual nor religious|
|44%||say they pray daily|
|92%||say they believe in God|
The following information is from Gallup.com (Source: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx).
|At Least 1/Week||At Least 1/Month||Seldom||Never|
The following information is from Gallup.com (Source: http://www.gallup.com/poll/159785/rise-religious-nones-slows-2012.aspx).
The following information is from ChurchCentral.com (Source: http://www.churchcentral.com/blog/180/How-many-churches-close-each-decade).
The following information is from House Church Manual (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2004).
The average church in the United States will spend as much as 64 percent of its budget on staff salaries. Additionally, it will spend as much as 30 percent of its offerings on maintaining its buildings
The following information is from CatholicsComeHome.org:
Copyright 2013 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.
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