The percentage of Americans who are not affiliated with any particular religion -- dubbed the "nones" -- rose to 20 percent in the latest analysis by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, compared to 15 percent five years ago.
Moreover, one-third of Americans under age 30 are religiously unaffiliated, Pew said Oct. 9, and the percentage of Americans who self-identify as Protestants dropped from 53 percent to 48 percent.
Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, said the report underscores the need for Southern Baptists to plant healthy churches.
"Southern Baptists shouldn't need any more evidence to convince us that we must increase our efforts to penetrate lostness in North America," Ezell said in a statement to Baptist Press. "We have had good intentions for the last 100 years, but the truth is we have lost enormous ground.
"I believe that only a church planting movement will reverse this trend and that is why our Send North America strategy is an all-out effort to help Southern Baptists move in that direction," Ezell said, referring to an emphasis on church planting in metropolitan areas.
Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, said the Pew report does not indicate a sky-is-falling moment.
"I am one to quickly point out when there are struggles and challenges," Stetzer told Baptist Press. "But this is the natural progression of a secularized society that has lost the value of identifying itself as Christian.
"We have about the same percentage of evangelicals as we did over the last few decades. Furthermore, that holds true among young adults as well," Stetzer said. "Crises sell books and make headlines, but they don't necessarily fix problems."
The church in America has become like a bear fed by tourists, Stetzer said, because of so-called seekers willing to return to church to recapture their childhood religious memories.
"What happens when you feed the bear is eventually it can't fend for itself," Stetzer said. "I think the people of the church have to learn to fend for themselves by going out and proclaiming the Gospel, not counting on a really cool church to preach the Gospel for them."
Russell Moore, dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said believers should be more concerned about the loss of a Christian majority in Protestant churches than the loss of a Protestant majority in the United States.
"What we should pay attention to instead may be the fresh wind of orthodox Christianity whistling through the leaves -- especially throughout the third world, and in some unlikely places in North America, as well," Moore wrote Oct. 9 at russellmoore.com. "Sometimes animists, Buddhists and body-pierced Starbucks employees are more fertile ground for the gospel than the confirmed Episcopalian at the helm of the Rotary Club."
It's not necessarily a bad thing that this generation of Christ-followers in the United States finds itself engaging a culture that is unfamiliar with the claims of Jesus rather than one that thinks it already knows what Christianity is about, Moore said.
"The American Protestant majority is over and to that I say, 'good riddance,'" Moore wrote. "Now let's pray for something new -- like a global Christian majority, on earth as it is in heaven."
Among the results of the Pew study:
-- The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans is driven mainly by generational replacement, Pew said, referring to the gradual displacing of older generations by newer ones. Older Americans are more likely than younger Americans to claim a religious identity.
-- Many of the 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way, Pew found. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God; more than a third classify themselves as "spiritual" but not "religious"; and one-in-five say they pray every day.
-- Those classified by Pew as nones include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6 percent of the U.S. population) as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14 percent of Americans).
-- The religiously unaffiliated are much more likely to describe themselves as political liberals as opposed to political conservatives, and more than 70 percent of them support legal abortion and same-sex "marriage."
-- Americans who rarely attend church services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether, Pew said.
"This is trumpeted because the nones have increased, but this is not that great of a shift," Stetzer said. "This is just a natural progression of what I call the nominals moving to the nones."
Stetzer used his family as an example.
"We grew up Catholic on Long Island, but the Catholic Church was the church we didn't go to. We were not really Catholic," Stetzer said. "Now, my parents don't identify as anything. So for them, they were nominal Catholics and now they're the nones. I think there's a lot of that."
For the past 40 or 50 years, the church has taught people that the key to growth is to invite and bring their friends to church, Stetzer said. While inviting friends to church remains important, he said, the church building cannot remain the focus.
"We can be too focused on the barn and the wheat actually won't harvest itself," Stetzer said. "So we need to go into the wheat fields, and this is where I think the re-emphasis on personal soul-winning matters."
Some faith leaders worry that the United States is going the way of Western Europe, where church attendance has collapsed and secularism reigns. Stetzer doesn't buy that argument.
"As a matter of fact, I don't know anybody in research who buys the Western Europe argument. I just know that panicked religious leaders often buy the Western Europe argument," Stetzer, who wrote about the Pew study at edstetzer.com, said.
"Western Europe was responding to two issues: religious wars and religious mandates. We have had neither on the soil of the United States," Stetzer told Baptist Press. "I think the future of faith here looks more like the Pacific Northwest where you have a predominantly secular society with robust Christian churches."
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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