From the commentary and blogs I have read about the most recent Pew Research study on the American religious landscape I have come to three conclusions.
1) Reading statistics and graphs is not a skill set that many have.
2) The Pew Folks lump together groups that may or may not have much in common.
3) Labels are not indicative of much today in life in general and that makes folks nervous.
To my point on number one. If you asked someone who looked at that study what the numbers on the graph meant I have a good feeling you would get this answer. "It shows that the number of folks who are affiliated with X group have changed over the past 8 years and that the number of non-Christians has increased dramatically."
That in fact is not what the graph shows. What it showed was the percentage share of the population that a certain group claimed of the entire adult population of the United States. A subtle difference, but important. And to my point #3, it does not show that the number of non-Christians has grown dramatically. It shows the number of people who chose not to be labeled has grown significantly as a percentage of the population and that, frankly, is what makes folks nervous.
We like to label people. We want to know who they are and what box they fit in. And when they challenge our boxes we collectively get nervous. One can just look at Bruce Jenner's transformation to get a sense of that issue and its hold on our minds.
Yet we increasingly have a growing generation of people in this country who eschew labels. Gender identity is just one of those labels being challenged. The children of the baby boomers are now fully adults (apparently the largest segment of the workforce now, sorry Xers, you got about 5 years in the spotlight there). These are the children of the generation that rejected the labels of their parents. Rather than remaining in their mom and dad's denominational and cultural boxes they became non-denominational. If their parents were the establishment then they were anti-establishment.
The generation that came of age in the crucible of the late 1960's and early 1970's was and has been defined not by what they were for but by what they stood against. This continued even as they aged. In the 1980's Ronald Reagan came to Washington to work against big government dominance and to fight godless communism. In the 1990's the first baby boomer President (who defeated Bush I of the generation of his parents) faced his own generations rejection through the Republican Revolution in 1994. This generation, regardless of whether they were on the political left or right, defined themselves largely by being against. But they still liked to have a label.
Now however their children are the largest segment of the workforce and a significant portion of the adult population and these children apparently are choosing less and less to be labeled. As such, the rise of the "unaffiliated." This should come as no surprise to anyone watching American demographics over the past couple decades. Patricia Killen wrote so many years ago about the "nones" in the Pacific Northwest and how that trend would spread. And it has.
So labels are going out of fashion. Should this worry us? Well yes it should if we plan to continue to do business as usual and define ourselves by our political, religious, or cultural boxes. That is what Pew must do to produce statistics and graphs. They put the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Southern Baptist Convention, Church of Christ, and your local non-denominational Bible Church in the same group (Evangelical Protestant). Perhaps that makes sense because these people largely vote Republican but they certainly do not share a theology.
But if we look around and realize that the labels are becoming less and less telling then we might be more comfortable and also might start realizing our labels aren't all that helpful. The largest ethnic group in the Sunday School at Trinity is "mixed." Fewer and fewer of our new members come with a letter of transfer from any sort of denomination much less a Lutheran church. However, that does not mean they aren't Christian. They just haven't chosen to take on the label of a particular denomination.
I was having a conversation with a Gen X member of our congregation recently. Raised in a mainline tradition different from his spouse they came to Trinity through our daycare. They told me, "We love Trinity and like the worship, preaching, and teaching for our kids. But we don't consider ourselves Lutheran and don't think we probably ever will." And this is not unique. I have had versions of this conversation with our new members time and again. Sure about 50% of our folks have a Lutheran background. But most do not. They are unaffiliated and probably would answer a survey as such. But they aren't non-Christian.
The funny thing is that in their theology most of these folks are Lutheran. That is why they like the preaching, teaching, and worship at Trinity. We talk regularly in our sermons about Lutheran distinctives in theology However, what they are rejecting is the label. They don't want to be labeled Lutheran. The question is, can we be ok with that? And then how will the Pew folks and others who want to quantify things modify their questions to get a more accurate view of the religious landscape.
Christianity isn't dying in this country. But labels are.