There's been a great deal of discussion lately about the declining number of people who consider themselves to be Christian. I started looking at some Pew Center data the other day and decided to look at it first from a fisheries biologist perspective, i.e. if this was a population of fish what would the data tell us and as a result, how would we manage that population. First step is to examine the age data. There is what I would call a recruitment problem, particularly among the youngest demographic (18-29) for Mainline Protestant churches. While this age demographic makes up about 20% of the U.S. population, only 14% identify themselves as Mainliners. Looking through the rest of the age demographics for Mainline churches, it is evident that this is an aging population, more so than the U.S. population as a whole which is what is really concerning. As anyone who is associated with a church knows, this is nothing earth shattering. It just backs up with numbers what one can observe in most any Mainline church on any given Sunday morning. You don't want to know what I'd do with a lake that had a fish population that looked like this!
As I dug into the numbers a little bit more though I found some interesting trends, particularly in regard to church attendance and prayer. Not surprising, about 60% those who identified themselves as members of Evangelical and Historically Black churches thought church attendance was necessary AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK. On the other hand, Mainliners considerably lower than that at 34%, in fact it was 10 percentage points lower than any other Christian denomination. Mormons, Jehovah Witness, and Muslims also ranked this very high. The first thing that jumps out at me is that churches that expect their members to attend church on a regular basis have high attendance. If you are a member of a mainline church and stopped attending regularly would anyone call you? When my wife and I were dating she attended an evangelical, non-denominational church and I the UMC. When she started coming to church with me her absence was noted at her church and she was called asking her if there was something wrong, they showed a genuine concern about her and the kids. The follow-up calls weren't quite as caring and could have used some work, but nonetheless they were made. Do mainline churches do that? Have they taken for granted that people are going to always be there? Don't we as Christians have an obligation for discipleship and for holding others that claim to be Christians accountable to that discipleship? I know we're often concerned with stepping on toes, hurting feelings or even driving people away. Should we be worried about that?
The other surprising figure in the Pew data was the overall lack of prayer by mainliners. Just over 50% prayed on a regular basis (weekly or daily). Mainliners are obviously not doing a very good job at developing the spiritual lives of our members either. There are exceptions, and several of them can be linked to from here, just scroll through the UM links and you're going to find several folks who are doing beautiful, thoughtful things in their congregations.
My attempt at analyzing the data as I would a biologist was pretty much a failure. Still, I think it raised some interesting questions. Thoughts?