More Data for White Mainline Protestants

In my previous post I explored how white mainline Protestant church leaders are out of touch with two groups: 1) the conservatives in their own ranks as well as the rest of the United States and 2) marginalized Christians. This was based on the Pew Research Center’s most recent political typology report. From this, I recommended that the mainline denominational leaders need to emphasize reaching out to and engaging in dialogue with non-ideological conservatives more. A new study published by PRRI this week further substantiates this.

The new study classifies Americans in four categories: spiritual and religious, spiritual but not religious, religious and not spiritual, and neither spiritual nor religious. According to the study, Americans break out into these categories as follows:

  • 29% are both spiritual and religious;
  • 18% are spiritual but not religious;
  • 22% are not spiritual but religious; and
  • 31% are neither spiritual nor religious.

There is an enormous amount that could be said about these categories alone–like the fact that there are so many people who are active in religious observances who do not feel spiritual (that means that American church leadership needs to keep in mind what it is actually leading people to become when those people get involved in church activities) and the fact that the majority group is not practicing religion and does not consider itself spiritual. Both these facts suggest that the American church of all stripes has a much larger issue on its hands than just trying to woo back those who believe in spirituality but are not religious.

More concerning for mainline denominations, however, is the following breakout of the four groups:

chart

According to the research, even people who fall into the final three categories (spiritual but not religious, religious and not spiritual, and neither spiritual nor religious) still claim to be affiliated with religious groups. Striking about this is that people who identify as white mainline Protestants are overwhelmingly either just going through the motions of being in church (religious but not spiritual) or attend without any real belief in the transcendent (neither religious nor spiritual). The only other group with such a high number of people in these categories are those who are completely unaffiliated with any religious organization.

Along with this, the political typology matches what Pew found. Conservatives are twice as likely to claim to be spiritual and religious compared to those who claim to be religious and not spiritual or neither spiritual nor religious. The reverse is true for liberals. Slightly less than half the number of liberals claim to be spiritual and religious compared to those who claim to be religious and not spiritual or neither spiritual nor religious.

This means that the most likely active participants that local white mainline Protestant congregations will have are conservative women.

Again, this points to a serious structural flaw in mainline denominational strategies for engaging with the larger public and with its own congregations. Per PRRI, most people who identify as white mainline Protestants are not deeply committed to a spiritual faith. Even those who are, are not that committed to their religious affiliation. Per Pew, those white mainline attendees who are committed to both a spiritual faith and their religious affiliation are largely conservative.

The new PRRI study adds another layer to this. Not only are they conservative, but they are likely also women. Women comprise 59% of Americans who are both spiritual and religious whereas as men comprise 56% of Americans who are neither spiritual nor religious. This means that the most likely active participants that local white mainline Protestant congregations will have are conservative women.

Again, this speaks loudly to the need for the mainline leadership to reconsider who they are actually reaching and who they need to be in dialogue with to best support those members who most actively support them. Investing heavily in liberal rhetoric and traditionally liberal causes will likely not do this. It is more likely to offend those who are the base of these congregations.

Supporting the faithful women who are already in the white mainline Protestant congregations with catechesis in the traditional Christian faith will meet both these needs.

Likewise, white mainline leadership should consider carefully who it is targeting through its outreach. Social justice work and care for the marginalized are certainly necessary activities of ministry, but if the desire is to reach out to the liberal community, this needs to be done with a clear ability to articulate the reasonableness of the Christian faith. Otherwise, the liberal men who make up the bulk of those who are not in the churches will likely just see the church as one more do-gooder organization that has nothing more to offer than any other non-profit.

Supporting the faithful women who are already in the white mainline Protestant congregations with catechesis in the traditional Christian faith will meet both these needs. It will meet them where they are in their own faith expression and it will equip them to make a difference in the larger American culture. This would be a win for everyone, both the church and the culture.