In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien writes of a race of ancient tree shepherds called the Ents. In the midst of the war between good and evil engulfing middle earth, the Ents are insular, worrying more about their lost Ent-wives. Many have fallen so deeply asleep that it is not clear whether they will ever awaken again.
Young Hobbits Merry and Pippin begin a relationship with the leader of the Ents, Treebeard, and do everything they can to open his eyes to the needs of the world in light of its great conflict. Somewhat successful in their efforts, Treebeard gathers together the few remaining mobile Ents for an Ent-moot to discuss the matter.
They are maddeningly slow and methodical. After days of convening, Treebeard breaks away to give the Hobbits an update. Hoping to hear about their decision to go to war against the forces of the dark lord Sauron, all Treebeard reports is that they have decided that Hobbits should be added to the accepted list of other known creatures.
In the movie version, only when Treebeard sees the carnage enacted by the evil wizard Saruman against the forest does he bypass the slowness inherent within his race, awaken all the Ents, and go to war.
As Merry and Pippin had hoped, when the Ents were fully awakened, they discovered they were strong.
Hold that thought…
You’ve probably read the headlines, featured prominently across the media spectrum: The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has released two analytic bombshells that have given confirmation of a stunning alteration of the cultural landscape.
First, their latest study finds that Protestant Christianity no longer constitutes the majority in the United States, declining from 53 percent to 48 percent since 2007 alone (for perspective, it was as high as two out of every three Americans in the 1960s).
So where did they go?
That’s the second bombshell.
They didn’t go anywhere. There is no shift from Protestant Christianity to another religious brand. Instead, there is simply the abandonment of a defined religion altogether.
Titled “Nones on the Rise,” the study finds that one in five Americans (19.3 percent) now claim no religious identity. This is up markedly from the much-publicized American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), released in 2009, which documented “Nones” nearly doubling from 1990 from 8 percent to 15 percent.
The “Nones” now make up the nation’s second-largest category, second only to Catholics, outnumbering even Southern Baptists (the largest Protestant denomination).
So who are these “Nones”?
Not who you might think.
They are not atheists. Most still believe in God. Almost half of them say they pray. They would consider themselves spiritual, or at least open to spirituality.
And they are not in one particular demographic; they are young and old, spread among higher and lower incomes, both college educated and holding GEDs, living in rural and urban settings, and both male and female, white and black.
So what marks them?
It’s simple: the rejection of any specific religion.
When it comes to content, dogma, orthodoxy -- anything “spelled out” or offering a “system of beliefs” -- they’ve gone from “I believe” to “Maybe” to “Who knows?” When pressed as to what they do hold to, they collectively answer, “Nothing in particular.”
But that’s not all.
They are also very content with “nothing in particular.”
Never mentioned in any of the news reports I read, but found in the actual reading of the study itself, is this sobering statistic: among those who say they believe in “nothing in particular,” 88 percent are not even looking for a specific faith or religion.
So perhaps it could be spelled out this way:
A specific religion? “Not for me.”
But at least seeking? “No, not really. Not a priority.”
The reason given by the “Nones” for their stance is not surprising: they believe religious organizations are “too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”
Translation: whatever the answer may be, it’s not there. The breakdown could not be more complete. It is akin to having a world full of people being open and even interested in hamburgers, but purposefully driving past McDonalds with disdain.
Personally, I am not surprised by the Pew findings. It’s just the latest chapter detailing a cultural trajectory we’ve been on for some time.
But I am grateful.
Because I pray it will be the desperately needed wake-up call American Christianity needs. A wake-up call to shake us from the trivial and divisive, the mundane and the meaningless, the inane and the banal.
For this is no time for such things. The need is too urgent, the day too dark, and the challenge too great.
This is no time for cross-town church competitions for transfer growth, then patting ourselves on the back for reaching the already convinced as if we somehow made a dent in hell.
This is no time to cling to outdated forms of communication or style because of the fear of change and the selfish attitudes we turn into theological fences we build around our personal taste.
This is no time to cave in to spiritual narcissism, where the primary concern is whether people are fed, ministered to, or “get anything out of it” as if the mission is caring for believers as consumers instead of dying to ourselves to reach a lost world.
This is no time for seminaries and their leaders to bow down in front of the academy, as if the ultimate goal is getting another paper into another academic journal on some inane issue irrelevant to anyone but fellow academics, when students are in desperate need to be trained and developed to lead churches to their fullest redemptive potential.
This is no time to keep putting evangelism down in the name of discipleship as if spending energy on one takes away from spending energy on the other, thus falsely spiritualizing a passive approach to outreach.
This is no time for denominations to protect outdated programs or agencies, policies or strategies which no longer work – continuing to foist them on to churches in the name of effectiveness – in the name of self-preservation and revenue stream.
This is no time to wave the flag of social ministry and justice issues so single-mindedly in the name of cultural acceptance and the hip factor that it becomes our collective substitute for the clear articulation of the gospel.
In other words, this is no time to wander around looking for Ent-wives or to spend time worrying about how to classify Hobbits.
It’s time to wake up and engage the battle at hand.
And that battle is clear: we must do whatever it takes, barring any reduction of the gospel itself, to bring this world to Christ.
If we do, we may just find -- as did the Ents -- that we are strong.
But first things first.
Do you remember the old children’s prayer?
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
As Christians in our modern world, perhaps our prayer should be:
“If I should wake before I die.”
James Emery White
“’Nones’ on the Rise,” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; read online.
Read online for a précis on the earlier ARIS findings, along with links to the full survey.
Articles/links on the latest Pew study:
“As Protestants decline, those with no religion gain,” Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today, 1A, Tuesday, October 9, 2012, read online; “One in five Americans reports no religious affiliation, study says,” Michelle Boorstein, The Washington Post, Tuesday, October 9, 2012, read online; “Protestants no longer the majority in US, study says,” Fox News/Associated Press, Tuesday, October 9, 2012, read online; “Number of Protestant Americans Is in Steep Decline, Study Finds,” Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, Tuesday, October 9, 2012, read online; “Protestants no longer a majority of Americans, study finds,” Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, October 9, 2012, read online.
Articles on the earlier ARIS study:
“Almost all denominations losing ground: Faith is shifting, drifting or vanishing outright,” Cathy Lee Grossman, Monday, March 9, 2009, USA Today, p. 1A and 6A; “Survey: We’re losing our religion,” Rachel Zoll, Associated Press, Monday, March 9, 2009, as printed in the Charlotte Observer, Monday, March 9, 2009. P. 5A; “U.S. religion ID inching to ‘none’,” Lance Dickie, The Seattle Times, as printed in the Charlotte Observer, Tuesday, March 24, 2009, p. 11A; “None of Thee Above,” Adelle M. Banks, Religious News Service, as printed in the Charlotte Observer, p. 1E and 3E, Saturday, March 14, 2009.
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James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.