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The Mission Field that Surrounds Us: Digging Into the Data

Seventh in a series of reflections on Fresh Expressions of church, the Florida Conference and United Methodism, and our relation to the “Nones,” “Dones” and the “Spiritual but Not Religious.” In research that is now almost 20 years old, a sobering picture of church involvement in U. K. caught the attention of leaders in the Church of England. The following groups were identified:

  • Regular Attenders: 10%

  • Less-Regular Attenders: 10%

  • Non-Churched: 40%

  • Open De-Churched: 20%

  • Closed De-Churched: 20%

There was geographical differentiation; in urban areas, for example, the percentage of non-churched was much higher than 40 percent. The authors of Mission-Shaped Church described these as five tribes, each requiring a different missionary approach. The reality they discovered was that most evangelism was directed to the nearest 30 percent—less regular attenders and open de-churched. This left and leaves 60 percent of people beyond the mission and vision of the church’s witness. Over the past 20 years, these realities have become more pronounced; the passive expectation that vast numbers would “come to us” was a seriously flawed missionary strategy, likened to a “time bomb” (37-40). Twenty years later, the church in the U.S. faces a similar urgency. The release of the Pew American Religious Landscape Study this year generated prominent headlines in the general and church media. “Christianity Faces Sharp Decline,” the Washington Post announced; “America is Getting Less Christian and Less Religious,” according to Huffington Post; and, in Christianity Today, “Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles.” These and other summaries were shared via social media and became the subject of sermons and lectures over the next months. I have encouraged friends and leaders to move beyond the headlines and to dig more deeply into the data itself. The discoveries there are significant. In the United States:

  • Christian affiliation is declining as a share of the population

  • The mainline and Catholic churches are experiencing the most significant decline

  • The evangelical and historically black churches are experiencing a slight decline

  • There is small growth in faiths beyond Christianity

  • There is significant growth among the unaffiliated (what Fresh Expressions calls both non-churched and de-churched)

  • One-third of the population has a religious identity different from the one in which they were raised (which confirms the decline of the power of “inherited church”)

  • Two-thirds of persons who immigrate to the U.S. are Christians

  • Anglos are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than blacks or Hispanics

  • Men are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than women

Of course, beyond the data there is the matter of interpretation. I offer three brief notes: First, we have clearly moved in most communities beyond a culture of church affiliation as conformity. A generation ago, it was acceptable and expected that one participated in a church in order to cultivate social, economic and political relationships. Ed Stetzer has distinguished between cultural, congregational and convictional Christians. The age of social conformity shaped cultural and congregational Christians but lacked the capacity to disciple men and women into a convictional and practicing faith. In a survey of over 500 members of The United Methodist Church in 2014, the question “What is the most important issue facing the church today?” was asked. The following priorities were identified across the five U.S. jurisdictions:

  • Creating disciples of Christ

  • Developing spiritual growth in members

  • Involving youth (next generations)

  • Addressing the decline in membership

It is significant that these were the four highest ranked priorities; human sexuality was eighth, and denominational structure was ninth. The responses provide a window into the common experience of many United Methodists: acknowledging the present reality of a church that was built not on discipleship but social conformity and the future vision of a flourishing church that makes disciples, nurtures spiritual growth and engages next generations. Second, the increasing numbers of “dones" (those who no longer claim a Christian affiliation, whom the British classify as “de-churched”) is the result of two factors. We must first accept responsibility; in the words of the confession, “We have failed to be an obedient church.” And, so, we are honest about the church's self-inflicted wounds, evident in the harm we have done to each other, evident in clergy misconduct and congregational conflict. We should also note that the growth of the unaffiliated has been shaped by the relentless critique of the church from without (the high culture of academia and the popular culture of film, television, drama and music) and within; in social media I am often taken by the default posture of cynicism and displaced anger within the church (and among the clergy), which takes the form of self-loathing. But a third learning from the data, for me, is most significant. The real shifts toward growth of the nones (an 8 percent increase from 2007-2015) calls us to take seriously movements like Fresh Expressions in the UK, which is a much more secular context than the U.S. One of the core aspects of the Fresh Expressions movement is its focus on emerging networks. In Pew Research on “Millennials in Adulthood,” this generation is described as “detached from institutions, networked with friends.” This networking outside the church occurs amidst the varying kinds of millennial experience. David Kinnaman of the Barna Group uses the language of “nomads,” “prodigals” and “exiles” to describe the diversity of orientations of young adults to Christian community. The fluidity and non-institutional character of Fresh Expressions removes some of the obstacles for emerging generations, who are increasingly detached from institutional affiliation. And it is clear that the younger the generation, the lower the figure of participation in Christian community—in other words, it is likely that the next generations will include more nomads, prodigals and exiles. One reason for this trend is that our evangelism (and pastoral care) has often been practiced amidst the 30 percent of Christians who are on a continuum somewhere between convictional and congregational faith. In other words, we have been preaching to the choir! So how, in using the metrics of the U.K., do we engage the 60 percent (inclusive of non-churched and de-churched)? God is calling us to connect with increasingly large numbers of persons outside the church. In each successive generation church participation is becoming less central in the lives of persons. And the complexity of our engagement with the mission field is that there is no one kind of person outside the church; some are unchurched, some de-churched; some are nomads, others prodigals, yet others exiles; some live in neighborhoods surrounding us, others are more aligned with networks. Fresh Expressions, by their very nature, are nimble enough to penetrate the different tribes within the generations and cultures that surround us. The challenge in the time ahead will be the strategic work of making disciples beyond the walls of our churches. While sobering, the data is our friend as we seek to “proclaim the gospel afresh in each generation” (Book of Common Prayer). Questions: Can you think of a non-churched friend you might characterize as a nomad? A prodigal? An exile? Can you differentiate between co-workers who are non-churched and de-churched? How do you live and speak of your faith differently among them? Next: A Deeper Dive into Discipleship: Sustaining Fresh Expressions of Church To Learn More: Graham Cray, Mission-Shaped Church David Kinnaman, You Lost Me, Pew Research Center ( “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” May 12, 2015 Pew Research Center, “Millennials in Adulthood,” March 7, 2014 Pew Research Center, “Nones on the Rise,” October 9, 2012 Ed Stetzer, “The State of the American Church: Hint: It’s Not Dying,” ( United Methodist Committee on Communications, “Membership Poll Data by Jurisdiction,” June 1, 2014

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