Envisioning Faith Formation 2020
Eight Significant Driving Forces Influencing Faith Formation 2020
What are the driving forces that will most directly impact the future of faith formation in Christian churches by 2020, and more specifically, the ability of congregations to provide vibrant faith formation over the next ten years? We cannot know what the future will hold beforehand. But we can see trends in the present, which, continuing on their current course, will have an impact on developing faith formation for 2020.
We know that Christian churches are confronted by a number of significant social, cultural, technological, and generational forces that make faith formation for all ages and generations quite challenging. There are driving forces that we can be reasonably certain will shape the worlds we are describing. These “predetermined elements” include the growing influence of Hispanic/Latino religious faith upon American Christianity, the rise of a new stage of adulthood—emerging adulthood, increasing numbers of adults sixty-five and older in American society, and increasing social, religious, and ethnic/cultural diversity in the United States. For example, it is a demographic certainty, that there will be more adults over sixty-five years old in the United States population, and in churches, over the next ten years.
Predetermined elements are important to any scenario story, but they are not the foundation on which these stories are built. Rather, scenarios are formed around “critical uncertainties”—driving forces that are considered both highly important to our focusing issue, the future of faith formation in Christian churches, and highly uncertain in terms of their future resolution. Whereas predetermined elements are predictable driving forces, uncertainties are by their nature unpredictable: their outcome can be guessed at but not known. While any single uncertainty could challenge our thinking, the future will be shaped by multiple forces playing out over time. The scenario framework provides a structured way to consider how these critical uncertainties might unfold and evolve in combination.
By reviewing research studies, analyzing trends, and consulting with leaders, the Faith Formation 2020 Initiative selected eight significant forces—critical uncertainties whose future direction is now known, but are already having a significant impact on faith formation today and it appears will continue to do so over the next decade. These eight trends may continue on their present course or change direction, but, in either case, it appears that they will have a significant impact on the future direction of faith formation through 2020.
1. Declining Number of Christians and Growing Number of People with No Religious Affiliation
The population of the United States continues to show signs of becoming less religious: In 2008, 15–16% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation, nearly double the 1990 figure. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion. The number of American adults identified as Christians dropped 10% from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2008. Similar to the general American public, Latinos have become less identified with Christianity—down from 91% in 1990 to 82% in 2008. No religious affiliation increased fourfold among Latinos from 900,000 or 6% in 1990 to nearly four million or 12% in 2008. It appears that the challenge to Christianity in the United States does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion. This growing non-religious minority reduces the traditional societal role of congregations in family celebrations of life-cycle events. Forestalling of religious rites of passage, such as marriage and baptism, and the lowering expectations on religious funeral services, could have long lasting consequences for religious institutions.
2. Increasing Number of People Becoming More “Spiritual” and Less “Religious”
A small but growing minority of the United States population describe themselves as spiritual but not religious (meaning not connected to organized religion): 9% of Americans were spiritual but not religious in 1998, rising to 14% in 2008; and 18% of 18–39 year olds say they are “spiritual but not religious,” compared to only 11% a decade ago. If what people mean when they say they are spiritual but not religious is that they are generally concerned with spiritual matters but are not interested in organized religion, then this trend indicates a growing minority of the population whose spiritual inclinations do not lead them to become involved in churches, synagogues, or mosques. In our increasingly pluralistic society, to be “spiritual” is more likely to represent an eclectic spirituality, drawing not only from the various streams of Christianity, but including elements of other religious traditions.
3. Declining Participation in Christian Churches
By all measures of participation, the trends point toward declining participation in church life in mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, including worship attendance, marriages and baptisms in the church, and children and youth participation in faith formation programming. Among young Hispanics, immigrants attend church services more regularly than do the native born (second and third generation). Combined with the trend toward fewer Christians and the growing numbers of religiously unaffiliated, it appears that succeeding generations of Christians are less likely to be exposed to formation in the Christian faith because worship attendance is down, and therefore participation in church life, education, and activities is down. This means less exposure to the Christian tradition and teachings, reduced opportunities to experience the Christian way of life, and far less reinforcement of the Christian faith in church settings. The effect of these trends can be found in research on emerging adults (twenty to thirty year olds): only 15% embrace a strong religious faith and another 30% believe and perform certain aspects of their religious traditions; at least 40% have no connection to a religious tradition (see Souls in Transition by Christian Smith).
4. Increasing Diversity and Pluralism in American Society
American society reflects a growing diversity of ethnic cultures and nationalities and their traditions, customs, foods, and languages, and also a growing diversity of religious traditions from the East and the West. Pluralism creates both richness and tensions. We live next door to other nations; we’re engaged in conversation with people from all parts of the world, with customs and expectations vastly different from our own. We also live in a pluralistic society in which no single authority exercises supremacy and no single belief or ideology dominates. Christian culture is no longer at the center of American life; it has been replaced by a tapestry of religious and spiritual alternatives and choices. The range of religious practice and belief in American society today is enormous, and it is all around us. The increasing diversity and the pluralism of belief and practice undermines the plausibility and truth-claims of any single religious tradition. The diversity of religious choice and openness to everything religious results in people crisscrossing religious boundaries as they construct their own personal spiritualities. We have become a society of “spiritual tinkerers” (Robert Wuthnow), which makes developing and sustaining a Christian identity and religious commitments exceeding difficult.
5. Increasing Influence of Individualism on Christian Identity and Community Life
The influence of individualism means that religious identity is more autonomous and deliberate today and that religion is less anchored in a sense of belonging. There is a decline in connectedness; a weakening or severing of the social basis of religion in family, marriage, ethnicity, and community; a decline in the perceived necessity of communal or institutional structures as constituent of religious identity. Religious identity today is not only less bounded by doctrine or creed; it is also less nurtured and reinforced by community. Significant numbers of Americans see little necessary connection between being spiritual and being part of a historic tradition, or part of a disciplined community of faith. This is reinforced by the mass media’s not-so-subtle message that you don’t need a religious community to engage “God issues.” Nominal membership increasingly replaces active involvement, a development paralleling national civic trends. Religion is less perceived as an inherited phenomenon, or as a binding community of discipleship and obligation. Religious leaders and institutions, which traditionally provided the framework within which religious meaning was constructed, have become increasingly peripheral to the spirituality and “lived religion” of private personal enterprise.
6. Changing Patterns of Marriage and Family Life
It appears that one of the reasons for the decline in church participation is that younger Americans are marrying later, having fewer children, and having them later—all of which means that far more younger Americans are single and childless than was true a generation ago and that the same younger Americans are not settling into religious congregations at the same rate as their parents did in the 1970s. Religious practice is especially influenced by marrying, settling down, having children and raising them. Since individuals who marry are more likely to attend religious services than are those who delay marriage, the postponement of marriage and childbearing has contributed to the decline in church attendance. Also, there has been a dramatic increase in religiously mixed marriages and partnerships: more than one-in-four (27%) American adults who are married or living with a partner are in religiously mixed relationships. If people from different Protestant denominational families are included, for example a marriage between a Methodist and a Lutheran, nearly four-in-ten (37%) marriages are religiously mixed.
7. Declining Family Religious Socialization
Family religious socialization has always been the foundation for the development of faith and faith practices in children, and for participation in church life and worship. As Christian Smith observes, “teenagers with seriously religious parents are more likely than those without such parents to have been trained in their lives to think, feel, believe, and act as serious religious believers, and that that training “sticks” with them even when the leave home and enter emerging adulthood. Emerging adults who grew up with seriously religious parents are through socialization more likely (1) to have internalized their parents religious worldview, (2) to possess the practical religious know-how needed to live more highly religious lives, and (3) to embody the identity orientations and behavioral tendencies toward continuing to practice what they have been taught religiously” (Souls in Transition, Christian Smith, 232). Significant indicators, such as religious identification as a Christian, worship attendance, marriages and baptisms in the church, and changing generational patterns, point to a decline in family religious socialization across all denominations, but especially among Catholic and Mainline traditions. Religious practice among the next generation of parents (young adults in their twenties and thirties) is especially influenced by marrying, settling down, having children and raising them. Since individuals who marry are more likely to attend religious services than are those who delay marriage, the postponement of marriage and childbearing has contributed to the decline in church attendance. Complicating this picture, is the fact that an ever growing percentage of Christians (at least 30%) are not getting married in a religious ceremony. The less contact that young adults have with the Christian tradition through participation in a local church, the less family religious socialization that is likely to take place when they marry and have children.
8. Increasing Impact of Digital Media and Web Technologies
Technology and digital media are transforming the ways we live. Globalization and pluralism are driven by this unprecedented technological change. People meet on Facebook and share their inspirations on YouTube all the while Tweeting to an assortment of friends. Groups of people at opposite ends of a continent or around the globe don’t need to leave their own contexts in order to meet in real time and in video, on Skype or some webinar format. Social connectivity is being leveraged globally online. People’s use of the internet’s capabilities for communication—for creating, cultivating, and continuing social relationships—is undeniable. However, time spent online often takes time away from important face-to-face relationships. Virtually all of those twenty-nine and younger in the United States today are online (as of 2010): 93% of teens (12–17) and young adults (18–29), 81% of adults thirty to forty-nine years old, 70% of adults fifty to sixty-four years old, and 38% of adults sixty-five and over. Increasingly people are accessing the internet on smart phones like the iPhone: sending or receiving text messages, taking a picture, playing a game, checking email, recording video, instant messaging, playing music, getting maps or directions, or recording and watching video. Media are among the most powerful forces in young people’s lives today. Eight- to eighteen-year-olds spend more time with media than in any other activity besides (maybe) sleeping—an average of more than seven hours a day, seven days a week. The television shows they watch, video games they play, songs they listen to, books they read, and websites they visit are an enormous part of their lives, offering a constant stream of messages about families, peers, relationships, gender roles, sex, violence, food, values, clothes, and an abundance of other topics too long to list. How will these new digital technologies transform our lives and our religious identities? What will be the impact of this technological revolution on faith formation and Christian congregations?
For a description of the "Eight Driving Forces" read the research summaries of each driving force from Chapter One of the Faith Formation 2020 book.