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Religious Change in America: They Buried the Lead

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For a brief period following graduate school, I worked for a denomination as its leadership consultant for preaching and worship. My first assignment was to steward an already-existing program for churches titled, “Let’s All Go to Church.” It was a growth campaign for churches, and one clearly designed to capitalize on people’s innate sense that they should, indeed, go to church.

That was 1991.

Even then I knew that it was a conceptual mess and was built on a terribly outdated assessment of culture.

My first self-assignment?

Instead of “Let’s All Go to Church,” it was, “Hey, Let’s All Come Up with a New Idea.” That new idea was titled, “Opening the Front Door.” Rather than reminding people to do what we (wrongfully) assumed they knew they should do (attend church), how about creating a church people would actually want to attend?

But even that idea is now passé.

You can think of the progression this way: In the 60s and 70s, you could play off of guilt and obligation to get people to attend a church. In the 80s and 90s, and even into the early 2000s, you could open the front door of the church in such a way that it would attract people who had been turned off to church.

Today?

The latest research from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has found that 26% of Americans now identify as religiously unaffiliated, making them the largest single religious group in the U.S. This isn’t exactly news. My book The Rise of the Nones came out in 2014. What has changed is that the number of atheists within that percentage has doubled since 2013, as has the number of agnostics. Another new dynamic is that not many of those who are unaffiliated are “looking for a religion that’s right for me.”

As in just 9%.

Also news? The reason why people are joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.

Many news articles on the PRRI report highlighted that nearly half (47%) of all respondents who left a faith tradition cited negative teaching about the treatment of LGBTQ people, rising to about 60% of Americans who are under the age of 30.