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Pew survey of
New York, March 5, 2008 – The editor of the National Council of Churches' annual Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches commends the report of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's survey of the U.S. religious landscape, and said the survey also raises interesting questions.
The Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, Director of Organizational Development for the NCC, said the survey highlights the church membership and religious affiliation trends that researchers have seen for a decade.
For example, the survey reports that more than one-quarter of American adults (28 percent) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion – or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44 percent of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether, according to the survey.
But the survey does not warrant a headline claiming "28 percent of adults have left the faith of their childhood," Lindner said. "Neither a theologian nor a church historian would think that leaving the Methodists to join the Disciples of Christ is leaving one faith for another.'"
Many mainline denominations "have walked together for more than a century," she said. "They've shared formally and informally in producing hymns, hymnals, missions and – certainly – the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. There's no surprise that people with this background move comfortably from one denomination to another."
The Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey is based on interviews with 35,000 Americans age 18 and older. The findings show that more than six in 10 Americans age 70 and older (62 percent) are Protestant, but only four in 10 Americans ages 18 to 29 (43 percent) describe themselves as Protestant.
"If these generational patterns persist, recent declines in the number of Protestants and growth in the size of the unaffiliated population may continue," the survey concludes.
"Low affiliation rates among young adults are not unusual," Lindner said. "Eighteen to 29 is the time of life when people are most apt to be un-churched, so we have to be careful in how we use those figures. Young adults are not going to church now, but when they get married and start families many are likely to come back."
"Indeed the generation of young adults – 'Gen X' and 'Gen Y' – are reluctant to formalize membership, even when they regularly participate and support congregations," Lindner said.
"Religion in America, as some have observed, has become a consumer product with a wide array of choices. That is precisely why there are 271 church bodies listed in the Yearbook."
A generation ago, it was essential for persons in professions to claim a religious affiliation, Protestant, Catholic or Jewish," Lindner said. "Today you can be successful and not be public about your religion, or have no religion at all. But we should be wary of theories that see the U.S. moving along the same secular lines as Western Europe, Our culture remains deeply religious."
Nearly eight out of 10 Americans surveyed (78.4 percent) described themselves as "Christian," according to Pew's report. More than half of this group (51.3 percent) said they were Protestant: 26 percent evangelicals, 18.1 percent mainline churches, and 6.9 percent historic African American Churches.
"We need to look at how this information was collected," Lindner said. "Many people who consider themselves evangelicals are members of mainline Protestant churches – and Catholic churches."
The Pew survey makes a welcomed contribution to the complex picture of religion in the U.S. Lindner said.
"The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches is a snapshot," Lindner said, "A kind of annual family Christmas picture, and each year the kids are a little taller. The Pew survey is an album of pictures, and it's good to see an album."
NCC News contact: Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228, NCCnews@ncccusa.org
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