In case you missed it, Yahoo! News reported earlier this week that, “for the first time in its history, the United States does not have a Protestant majority.” The report (released Tuesday from Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life) breaks it down this way:
Protestant – 48%
Catholic – 22%
Unaffiliated – 19.6%
Other faith – 6%
Not only is the number of Americans claiming “no religious affiliation” on the rise, but also one-third of adults under age 30 now fall into this category.
This study raises questions about how cultural shifts within the church affect this larger shift toward no religious affiliation. Theologian and philosopher Kenneth Samples fields some of these questions and helps motivate this author (and readers as well, I hope) to think deeply about the foundations of our faith and how we might rethink our approach.
Ken, the study indicates that the “unaffiliated” category includes atheists as well as those who believe in God, pray daily, and consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.” How do you understand this idea of being spiritual but not religious?
“Being spiritual” could mean many things—Krishna Consciousness, Eastern mysticism, or New Age belief. To those who say they’re Christian but not religious, I would ask questions. Would they recognize and agree with the Apostles’ Creed, for instance?
What about nondenominational Christians? While Pew included them in their Protestant figure, some disagree on whether they should be counted as Protestants.
That’s a tricky question. Some suggest there is a whole new branch of Christendom. I’m not sure what to call it. It could be nondenominational; it could also be largely Pentecostal- or Charismatic-oriented churches—those that put a heavy emphasis upon Christian experience. It could also be reflected in what I often hear people say: “I’m just a follower of Jesus.”
What do you think is motivating this movement toward nontraditional churches?
A lot of people are turned off by traditional churches and would say they “like Jesus a whole lot more than the church.” They would also say they know the Lord and they feel they can best express their faith in a nontraditional church. With Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism, I know where we agree and where we disagree. This fourth branch is less clear to me.
What would make this fourth branch of Christendom clearer?
First, when I think of defining Christianity, I think of three things: a set of beliefs, a collection of values, and a way of life—in that order. For many, Christianity is a way of life. The values may or may not be there, and even less attention is given to doctrinal beliefs. Relationship is important, of course, but truth must not take a backseat. Faith has to be anchored somewhere beyond just experience.
How do you think this emphasis on experience impacts whether one stays with the faith?
We all go through several stages of faith. As children, we adopt our parents’ beliefs, then as adolescents we often become very skeptical of what we’ve been taught. Finally, we decide either to come back to the Christian faith or to broker something new. If parents have had either a lax approach or an overly rigid approach to doctrine and values, it seems less likely their children will come back to the faith.
Often individuals struggle with deep questions during that “second stage” of faith, as you call it. No doubt you’ve heard people share how a negative response to their genuine questions served as a catalyst in pushing them away from the faith.
Right. I think that’s almost a universal experience among Christians. Asking a question that implies some doubt about the truth of Christianity is sometimes treated by those within the church as unwelcome. I look at it differently. A normal, critical thinking person will have doubts when considering life, Christ, and his or her relationship with God. Sadly, many people feel they don’t have the freedom to be candid and raise their doubts. When it’s allowed to fester or is not taken seriously, doubt becomes corrosive and destructive toward faith when it’s never effectively confronted,
As theologian Jaroslav Pelikan said, “The church is always more than a school….But the church cannot be less than a school.” In other words, the church can be many things—a place of worship, a place for fellowship, a “hospital” for those hurting in spirit, body, and financially—but at its core it should function as a school, where it’s teaching people, opening up peoples’ minds, and trying to answer objections. When someone shares their doubts within a framework of a really good “school” then faith and reason can stand side by side.
Could we expect all doubts to be answered or will some remain? If so, should that dissuade someone from committing to the faith?
That’s a really important point. Faith involves factual knowledge—you have to know that Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead. Still, we are finite creatures with a fallen nature. There are things God has not totally given to us in terms of information, so mystery is a necessary part of our faith. The whole process allows for doubt, and I believe that doubts can coexist with faith.
So there’s room for doubt, but what can we be certain of? What are the best evidences for faith?
I think what Christians can sink their teeth into and be confident about is that the Christian worldview offers the best explanation of the world’s most meaningful realities. It’s not that other worldviews can’t offer some explanation, but the explanations they provide are more limited, not as profound, and more ad hoc in nature.
A fine-tuned, finite cosmos that includes moral principles, laws of logic, universals, abstractions, humanity’s creative and religious expression, and our “great and wretched” condition fit well with the belief that God created the universe, created it according to logic and laws, created us in his image, and then networked us. I don’t think atheism has a way of grounding these conditions. Then there’s Jesus. I’ve read about Muhammad, the Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster. They are very intriguing, powerful, significant people. Yet they can’t compare with Jesus of Nazareth—his life and death, and the historical evidence of his resurrection (birth of the church, the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, the transformation of the apostles).
It’s our mission here at Reasons To Believe to share “best evidences” for Christian faith, evidences that impact our “set of beliefs and collection of values.” Yet we also recognize the importance of living a faith in such a way that reflects our beliefs and values. As Ken puts it, “People may become interested in what you believe because they see your values and the kind of person you are.”
So, to those searching for answers to those universal questions, we invite you to “Let Reasons To Believe challenge you as you search and test out what is true.”