Protestants in America made big news last week – by officially becoming a minority.
A major study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2007 showed that American Protestants, at 51.3 percent of the population, were “on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country.”
A smaller, 2012 study by the Pew Forum shows that we’ve clearly crossed the line: just 48 percent of Americans now identify themselves as Protestant, down from 62 percent in 1972.
Other denominational preferences include 22 percent reporting as Catholic, 2 percent are Mormon, 1 percent are Orthodox, and 6 percent belong to another faith.
The biggest factor in the shrinking Protestant numbers is the rise of the “nones,” people who identify with no religion at all, now 20 percent of the population.
These include those who identify as atheists and agnostics (about 2 percent together), with 14 percent saying “nothing in particular” and 2 percent checking “don’t know.”
It comes as no surprise that younger adults are more likely to be unaffiliated: more than a third of “younger millennials” (age 18-22) indicate no religious preference, while only 5 percent of those 80 and older and 9 percent of Americans 67 to 79 years old state no religious affiliation.
Younger generations are showing a steady erosion in religious involvement: in 2012, 21 percent of Gen Xers (now 32-47) and 15 percent of Baby Boomers (age 48-66) describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, according to the Pew report, both up 3 percentage points (from 18 percent and 12 percent in 2007).
Church leaders, of course, continue to scratch their heads, wondering why religious affiliation continues to skid, fearing that America will follow Western Europe, where church attendance has plummeted.
Any number of factors comes into play as culture and society evolve, and as the stigma of being religiously unaffiliated lessens.
I don’t claim to have an answer or any survey data to back it up, but one thing remains true, I think: the appeal of any religious group hinges largely on the public perception of those who profess it.
If Protestant Christians are perceived as judgmental, hypocritical or uncaring, their numbers will continue to decline.
If we’re seen as accepting, hopeful, loving people who care for each other and the world, we have a much better chance of attracting others. Who doesn’t want to feel acceptance, hope and love?
If the secular world does a better job of demonstrating those things than the church, we should not be surprised to see the numbers continue to swing.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.