I remember back to a time when I was in the Army and moving from place to place. Each move would present the same challenges, among them – finding the “right” church to attend on Sundays.
Apparently, this is a pretty common theme in America and there are a plethora of churches to choose from!
Where to start? Maybe you first nick it down to what brand or denomination of Christianity you associate yourself with. For Catholics, it’s a little easier; although, the neighborhood parish priest may not be what you’re looking for on Sunday, but there’s likely another Catholic church within driving distance that suits your needs. For Protestants, especially those that don’t affiliate with a specific branch of Protestantism, the choices in front of you could be overwhelming!
First off, there are Baptists, Anabaptists, Methodists, Calvinists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopals, Anglicans, Quakers, Shakers, and Holy Rollers. There are Charismatics, Evangelicals, Congregationalists, Mainline, and Revivalists. There are the “newer” versions of Christianity, including Mormonism and Jehovah Witnesses. There’s Liberal Christianity, Conservative Christianity – it’s almost like watching Bubba reeling off all the different ways to cook to a shrimp in Forest Gump! Apparently, there are “only” 8,973 Protestant denominations to choose from. Link
So choosing a brand is important, but so is choosing the god that goes along with that brand!
“The Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion conducted a survey covering various aspects of American religious life. The researchers analyzing the survey results have categorized the responses into what they call the “four Gods”: An authoritarian God (31%), a benevolentGod (25%), a distant God (23%), and a critical God (16%). A major implication to emerge from this survey is that “the type of god people believe in can predict their political and moral attitudes more so than just looking at their religious tradition.” Link
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (a national treasure) shows that 78.5% of the American population identifies with some form of Christian label. Link But a study by Christianity Today went even further and broke Christians down into 5 subsets: Active Christians, Professing Christians, Liturgical Christians, Private Christians and Cultural Christians.
- “19 percent of American Christians are described by the researchers as Active Christians. They believe salvation comes through Jesus, attend church regularly, are Bible readers, invest in personal faith development through their church, accept leadership positions in their church, and believe they are obligated to “share [their] faith”, that is, to evangelize others.
- 20 percent are referred to as Professing Christians. They also are committed to “accepting Christ as Savior and Lord” as the key to being a Christian, but focus more on personal relationships with God and Jesus than on church, Bible reading or evangelizing.
- 16 percent fall into a category named Liturgical Christians. They are predominantly Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, or Orthodox. They are regular churchgoers, have a high level of spiritual activity and recognize the authority of the church.
- 24 percent are considered Private Christians. They own a Bible but don’t tend to read it. Only about one-third attend church at all. They believe in God and in doing good things, but not necessarily within a church context. This was the largest and youngest segment. Almost none are church leaders.
- 21 percent in the research are called Cultural Christians. These do not view Jesus as essential to salvation. They exhibit little outward religious behavior or attitudes. They favor a universality theology that sees many ways to God. Yet, they clearly consider themselves to be Christians.” Link
I admit I’m a bit fascinated by the latter two categories – since almost half of American Christians are either Private or Cultural Christians. Cultural Christian was a “category” I was using to describe my oldest son until I found out this weekend that he considers himself agnostic, leaning toward atheist. Four plus years in college, majoring in sociology, I shouldn’t be surprised…
I suspect for many Christians, especially since they were raised from the earliest age to “believe” in Christianity, self-identify with the majority religion, but not enough to read the bible or go to church on Sundays.
But labeling is important – as a Catholic blogger points out:
The defining question was always, ‘What are you?’ You knew immediately that someone was asking what church you attended. So, the answer was always along the lines of ‘Lutheran’, ‘Catholic’, ‘Baptist’. Therefore, today, I still find it unnerving that people refer to themselves as ‘Christian’, rather than give more detail. That leaves it to me to ask, ‘Oh, and what denomination?’ Tell me ‘what youare’, then I know what you believe. Link
Many people find religion doesn’t work for them any longer, or doesn’t have a relevant place in their lives. This is not to say they no longer believe in some sort of “higher power” or even a “god” that would be recognizable as a traditional monotheistic god, but the religious experience of gathering with like minded people in a congregational setting does not work for them. Take for example a 2005 poll of European views on religion and belief:
It should be noted that “I believe there is a God” doesn’t automatically correlate to a Christian God-like figure, just as the statement of belief in a sort of spirit or lifeforce doesn’t rule out belief in a Christian view of god.
As No Religious Preference, or None, becomes more commonplace, we are seeing major shifts in the self-identification of religious belief and affiliation. Even in the military, long a bastion of Christian belief, over 30% of service members self-identify as NRP, Humanist, or even Pagan Link– something other than “Christian Other” in terms of describing their religious views. This, coupled with the rising numbers of the “non-affiliated” among the Millennial generation does not bode well for the long term health of Christianity in America. Link
So with almost 9,000 denominations to choose from, four different versions of god to choose from, it must be overwhelming for the 5 different types of Christians out there to pick a decent church that speaks to them. It’s little wonder that more people don’t just say screw it, put me down for “No Religious Preference.”
Next up – a look at the different types of non-believers.