My friend Rich Smith dropped the first official question regarding my offer to do a loosely running interview in preparation for my upcoming book release this summer. In a previous post, I offered to take any question on writing, books, faith, life, etc. Granted that's a broad category, but Rich has always been up to ask good questions. His was on the issue of faith--a rather pointed concern in my writing, given that my protagonist Detective Cameron Ballack, is a skeptic himself.
Rich brought up the recent Pew Foundation research on religious affiliation and strength in the American landscape. I won't share all the details here because everyone is able to access the report elsewhere. But Rich did ask how I interpreted the multi-point decline of Americans identifying as Christian (linked to a rise of the "unaffiliated" who would claim no religious faith at all). He was especially interested how I viewed that in relation to what Jesus says in John 15:18-25.
Okay, I'm not sure I can give a full response in a short blog post, but in looking at the John passage, one can go either of two directions. Either the Pew research is tracking a natural flow of the secularization of American life in which some people are peeling out of Christianity, or this is evidence that there is a growing hatred of Christianity.
I think it could be both, but let me explain the second part. Perhaps what we're seeing here is a frustration on the part of some who have found their particular Christian tribe weighed in the balances and found wanting, that they haven't found the intellectual, moral, or community cohesion what it should be, so they look for it elsewhere. Personally, as a teacher in a Christian school, I'm running across more and more kids who are in these evangelical churches but are de facto deists, agnostics, or atheists and are keeping relatively quiet while on their Christian educational journey. And I find them to be very hungry, very precocious, and very engaging. It's just that people have to understand that the skepticism is not merely out there in Hollywood or Wall Street or the wider culture. It's in the pews of churches and Christian school chapels around the nation.
Rich also asked a second question: "How do you interpret the more granular data which shows evangelical churches growing in strength while mainline congregations dwindle?"
Good question, and maybe the Episcopal Church will still be functioning by the time I finish my answer (I say tongue-in-cheek). At first glance, the Pew study shows a slight decline in evangelical congregations, but there's some things it didn't include which Ed Stetzer--the irrepressible Yoda of missiology--tackled on CNN.com this past week. Here he points out that while we're seeing a great deal of mainline decline and even decline amongst evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention (in which Stetzer is a ordained pastor), these are balanced by the rise of the evangelical "nones". In the past couple of years, the number of nondenominational evangelicals have increased from around 12% to 25%, a staggering upshot. For those who survey using labels, some of these non-denoms can fly under the radar, and so although there's a significant amount of secularism at play in America and which won't be going away anytime soon, neither will the presence of those who claim evangelical faith.
In truth, that makes for a very interesting America. As America should be.