"In Protestantism too often the measurement is bodies, budgets and buildings. It feels fake to people if we are just trying to get numbers," he said. "But if the goal is instead to make the world a better place in Jesus' name, then the responsibility of the church is to do good things."
Clearing the ranks
Not all clergy think the growing number of "nones" requires an overhaul in the church.
Russell Moore, a dean at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., sees the shift as a necessary clearing of the ranks of uncommitted who "hid behind a Christian mask to appear as a good American."
"I think the collapse in the majority is a good thing in that what is collapsing is weak, anemic Protestantism," Moore said.
He envisions what will take its place is a thriving form of orthodox Christianity that distinguishes itself from popular culture. "Some churches are in their death throes because they are indistinguishable from cultures around them," he said.
"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," Moore wrote in a farewell to the Protestant majority. "Accordingly, evangelicals will engage the culture much like the apostles did in the first century — not primarily to 'baptized' pagans on someone’s church roll, but as those who are hearing something new for the first time."
How the unaffiliated would respond to the new eras Fredrickson or Moore envision is uncertain. Pew researchers found that while there is considerable churn in and out of church affiliation by individuals, the percentage of a generation that is unaffiliated doesn't change as it gets older.
If generational trends dating back to the 1970s hold true, most of the under-30 generation who identify as unaffiliated will remain so into their senior years. Pew researchers said that more than 30 percent of the unaffiliated are 30 years old, making that generation the most disconnected with traditional religion than any before them.
"They are a bit demographically disadvantaged because people who are not religious tend not to have as many children as those who are more religious," he said.
Still, their disinterest in organized religion presents some unknowns about how they will raise their families and engage in their communities, he said.
"Religion has traditionally helped families socialize their children in morality. The question is what strategy these people will take in the moral socialization of their children," Baker said.
Turned off by labels
Elizabeth Drescher, a religion scholar at Santa Clara University who is researching the spiritual practices of the "nones," said they will likely turn to others like them in the social networks they have built digitally or in person.
"People are finding themselves in different ways by being networked to other people who have affinities in spiritual interests," she said.
Drescher said the labels of "none" or "unaffiliated'' can lead to inaccurate conclusions that someone who does not want to sign up isn't religious or doesn't participate. She compared the religiously unaffiliated to independent voters who are engaged politically and reliably vote Republican or Democrat but don't want to be identified with either party.
"I am still working on the data, but anecdotally I am finding people who go to church or may be involved in a community but they just don't like the terminology of 'affiliated,'" she said. "These people don’t want to be pledging units. They want to be who they are and valued in their uniqueness."
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