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"Our culture has shifted; we are now granted more religious freedom to discover our own spiritual path instead of simply identifying with our heritage. As a result, those who do engage in a spiritual practice do so out of commitment rather than obligation."
“Oh No! The religious sky is falling!” the news commentators declared after a Pew Research Center survey recently revealed that over the past seven years the number of Americans who identify themselves as Christians has dropped nearly 8 points to about 70%. Meanwhile the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has hit an all-time high of 23%. This supposed collapse is apparent across all age groups and ethnicities. One commentator wrote, “We are staring in the face a European-style collapse in religious observance within a couple of generations.”
Is this news? Is the sky really falling? Maybe for some people this is startling and perhaps for others it is even bad news, but from where I’m seated this sounds like the best news I’ve heard in a long time. Why?
First, realistically assessing if you are affiliated with a faith tradition is important self-awareness. Just because your grandmother went to Catholic mass every day doesn’t mean you are automatically Catholic. My parents raised me on a horse farm. My three older sibling loved to ride. I couldn’t stand it. I would never claim to be a “horse woman” just because as a kid I shoveled stalls. In the same way, for generations Americans have been identifying with religious traditions that represented their family’s heritage, not their faith experience. Our culture has shifted; we are now granted more religious freedom to discover our own spiritual path instead of simply identifying with our heritage. As a result, those who do engage in a spiritual practice do so out of commitment rather than obligation.
Second, institutional loyalty has diluted Jesus’ radical Gospel for centuries. I’ll never forget when an elementary classmate adamantly denied they were Christian and instead explained they were Roman Catholic. Years later in graduate school I met many soon to be ministers who had stronger ties to their denomination than they did to Jesus’ teachings. There were times at Princeton Theological Seminary I felt like we were collectively worshiping Calvin and spirit-less creeds and doctrines, instead of the man from Nazareth. Shifting institutional loyalty will give rise to more authentic and meaningful faith practice. This is perhaps the best news of all. We are already seeing the fruits of this shift as new ways of following Jesus arise from emergent churches to new monastic communities.
Finally, the question what does it mean to be Christian is a deeply important one. I would argue that 70% of America can’t truly be Christian otherwise we would be doing a much better job of caring for the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the burdened, and the battered (Luke 4:18). Yet on the other hand, some would argue I am a terrible Christian because of my feminist views. I welcome a national conversation about what it means to identify yourself as a Christian. Does it mean you vote a certain way? That you go to church every Sunday? Pray regularly? Protest at abortion clinics and gay marriages? Or maybe feed the homeless regardless of your city’s ordinance against such subversive acts? Serious debate about what it means to be Christian welcomes serious faith exploration and in my experience faith exploration is always rewarding.
Are you part of the 70%? Were you raised Christian and now identify as something else? Were you raised with Christian heritage, but little faith experiences? Or are you one who joyfully and consciously identifies with a religious tradition because you have the freedom to? I’m the later. I’m a progressive Christian because I was given the freedom to discover my own faith journey and ask important faith questions.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.