The Other 83%

Michael Metzger

The rest of us
When you think of Britain, you think tea drinkers, right? When you imagine China, you imagine communists, right? In both cases, you’d be partly right but mostly wrong. So when you hear that 94% of Americans believe in God, what do you imagine – an enthusiastically religious country? In this case, you’d be partly right but mostly wrong. In fact, you’d be very wrong about 83% of the US population. But let’s start with Britain.

In 2005, for the first time, Britain spent more on coffee than on tea. British people are still drinking more tea – 165 million cups a day – than coffee, but they’re spending more and more on coffee, especially the younger people.1 When I popped out of one London Underground station last summer, I counted five Starbucks within a stone’s throw. Britain is becoming a nation of coffee drinkers. What’s China becoming?

When a Chinese individual reaches the age of 18, they are asked to accept the Communist Party’s Program and Constitution and are encouraged to work actively in one of the Party organizations. They can also apply for membership in the Party. As of 2007, China’s Communist Party reported 73 million members, roughly 5.6% of the population. China is becoming a nation of capitalists more than communists. What’s America becoming?

We all know that over ninety percent of Americans claim to believe in God. So we’re a churchgoing country, right? Nope. The biggest development in American religion is an attitude described as “apatheism” by Jonathan Rauch.2 Apatheists aren’t contemptuous of faith; they just couldn’t care less. It’s disconnected from their life. Yet they constitute <i<two hundred and fifty million Americans… 83% of the US population. For them, religion – and Christianity in particular – is been-there-done-that. But is it really 83%?

Start with the one-third of the population claiming to be born again. Of these one hundred million Americans, fifty percent attend church far less frequently than they admit. “Beginning in the 1990s, a series of sociological studies has shown that many more Americans tell pollsters that they attend church regularly than can be found in church when teams actually count,” writes John G. Stackhouse Jr., a professor of theology and culture. He says actual churchgoing is half the professed rate and perhaps the most ominous statistic regarding prospects for Christianity.3 Why ominous? The younger the American, the less frequent the attendance.4 The culprit? Boredom. This makes fifty million apatheists who routinely skip church. But there’s more.

The proportion of people who say they never go to church or synagogue has tripled since 1972, to 33 percent in 2000.5 That’s an additional one hundred million Americans. Keeping count? We’re up to one hundred and fifty million apatheists. But there’s more.

The remaining one hundred million Americans rarely attend church, only on Easter or Christmas. Nominal attendance indicates indifference, or apathy. This brings the number of apatheists to two hundred and fifty million – 83% of the population. If you still think America is a churchgoing country, you’d be partly right but mostly wrong.

Being wrong affects people in one of two ways: they become indignant or introspective. Indignant people often point to their individual church and insist on how rapidly it’s growing. But they routinely ignore what I call the Walmarting of the church. I’m not opposed to Walmart, but for every suburban Supercenter, there are hundreds of stores in town that close shop. When it comes to creating more work opportunities, it’s a wash at best. For every new megachurch, there are hundreds of nearby churches that are losing members.6 In terms of net church growth, it’s a wash. This is why introspective Christians count the number of quiet streets on Sunday morning instead of crowded sanctuaries. They see that we need a faith for the rest of us, the 83% of the population.

In 1984, Apple unveiled the Macintosh, “the computer for the rest of us.” Apple created a new way to access the bits and bytes buried in every computer code, the unalterable foundation for all computing. They stormed the fortress of geeks who spoke Fortran or cloistered around coded languages like Cobalt. Twenty-five years later, “the rest of us” have become most of us. Most of us navigate by mouse and menus on our phones, iPods, and computers – a direct result of Apple’s contribution to computing.

We need a new way to access the bits and bytes buried in creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, the unalterable foundation for everyday life. Talking about creation connects well with the people in the sanctuary, 17% of the population. We need a second language that connects the other 83% – the people on the street. Apathy is simply disinterest distilled from disconnection. “If you use the same words to describe the world, you’re sending the message that nothing’s changed. Change the language, and you change the way people think,” says Alan Webber, who left Harvard Business Review to launch Fast Company.7 Everyone talks in the code of ought, is, can, and will. It connects with “the rest of us” – the 83% who imagine Christianity as been-there-done-that. Imagine what might happen over the next 25 years if Christians learned how to reframe the faith for apatheists. It could become the faith that connects with most of us.

1 Mary Jordan, “Just Their Cup of Tea: British Cultivate Their Own After Importing for Centuries, Brew-Loving Nation Grows Its First Commercial Crop,” Washington Post, October 23, 2005; A16.
2 Jonathan Rauch, “Let It Be” The Atlantic Monthly. May 2003. Vol. 291, Issue 4; p. 34.
3 John G. Stackhouse Jr., “Where Religion Matters.” American Outlook. Fall 2002. pp. 40-44.
4 David Kinnamon, unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), p. 39.
5 Thomas Bryne Edsall, “Blue America,” The Atlantic Monthly. January 2003. Vol. 291, Issue 1.
6 William Chadwick, Stealing Sheep: The Hidden Problems of Transfer Growth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001).
7 Alan Webber, founding editor of Fast Company. Interviewed by Keith H. Hammonds in “The Life of the Party: The Take of How Fast Company Came to Be,” Fast Company, March 2006, p. 42.


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  1. Very thoughtful piece. Your comments lead my thought to other ways language can be a barrier.

    Here are some questions ricocheting around in my mind (or, as Dave Barry would put it, like a BB rolling around in an empty tuna fish can):

    Has our language helped us by dividing the world into two groups–those in the club (Christians) and those outside (non-believers)? Don’t those terms suggest that we have something that they don’t and that our job is to see that they get what we have? That we’re divided from others in the very way we think about them?

    I see the trap for myself in that: others need transformation, but I don’t since I’m already in the club.

    Our language gets in our way right from the start.

    So, I like the thought that we need to change our own language as a good place to start.

  2. Maybe it is not our language that needs changing, maybe language without action is precisely why the divide exists. Maybe it is those of us ‘in the club’ that need transformation the most. And maybe it is our transformation that will speak with the most clarity to those who are looking, but are weary of hearing without seeing. Maybe then we’ll have the credibility to use creative language to close the gap between what is and what could be.

  3. That’s the work of good evangelism. Bringing the language of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration to activities and conditions of nonchurched folks who are doing God’s work but don’t realize the full dimensions of what they are doing. Realizing the full dimensions then expands and grounds their work, hopefully resulting in the abundant life for all.

  4. Bruce,

    You hit the nail on the head. Our “club” language is ROOTED in our club theology. There ought to be a better way to think, realize & communicate that “they” have at “their” disposal – the love & forgiveness in a relationship with Christ – that “we” “know a lot about” but “they” don’t. “Our” knowledge puffs up and no wonder “they” don’t want to join “our” club.

    When all is said & done, being friends with others brings others into our orbits. But if we’re too busy with our club, we don’t have time to make friends. Friends love each other. Case closed.

  5. As a Mac guy, I really enjoyed the Apple analogy. I switched computer systems because I was tired of not getting work done. In the same way, I have tried to change my language to make a connection with others that makes sense and yet doesn’t polarize or disinterest others. This approach is more comfortable for me because I am not labeled immediately and subsequently dismissed as irrelevant. I have gotten the thoughtful, logical colleague attitude instead. I believe this is way the way it ought to start.

  6. I think you need to question an automatic connection of “churchgoing” with “faith”.

    My faith is not dependent upon – nor expressed through – “attending” church. I don’t believe that church – the ecclesia – is something one can “attend”: at a certain place on a certain day at a certain time. . . . Neither, however, can you say that my refusal to “attend” a “church” makes my walk of faith marginal, apathetic, or irrelevant.

    All that being said, you have a point about self-identified Christians whose so-called faith makes no difference in their lives. I just don’t think you can see or measure life-change by counting who goes to church on Sunday morning.

  7. In response to marble (above), the idea of genuine faith verses attendance makes me wonder if genuine Christianity is even less – as though 17% is a high number? In any case – the task ahead of the church is tremendous!

    As a worship pastor, my challenge is an internal language issue. As I seek to facilitate worship settings that allow people to worship God in their “cultural” language – even within the church – I’m torn as to what that language is. Is it steeped in the traditions of old, is it on the cutting edge of new worship styles, is it somewhere in the middle?

    Through into that mix, the curios onlooker or the duty-bound apatheist who stumbles into a worship setting. Are they seeing genuine worship take place?

    You raise some excellent questions that impacts every aspect of church life. I wonder if the solution is not in the church organzations but in the people of the Church being the Church. Is it too much for us to challenge people to truly live what they profess to believe – resulting in bearing light to a spiritually lost, lazy and dying nation?

  8. I agree with Marble.

    It is not logical to simply conclude that if one says that he is religious but does not attend a religious institution, then he is therefore apathetic or apatheistic.

    To be honest with all of you, and I don’t mean to offend anyone, but this is the kind of “simple-mindedness” that keeps me away from religious institutions in the first place.

    Also, I do not judge the American (or any) society by the number of people who “claim” a religious affiliation or who attend a religious institution. I judge a society by its actions.

    We should be less concerned about “church attendance” than by other statistics such as those dealing with crime, poverty, freedom, education, donation, etc.

    I believe that Christ was more concerned about those things as well.

    If our churches fill with people who don’t behave like Christians, then would that still make us a “Christian” nation?

  9. Let’s not worry about offending anyone – good people can disagree in agreeable ways. I think, however, that Marble and Ken are missing 83% of the forest and focusing on a few trees. My point was disinterest in 83% of the wider population, largely attributed to Christian incoherence. I have no quibble with the inadequacies of counting heads in church, 17% of the population. Big deal. I do have a quibble with language that is essentially meaningless in today’s been-there-done-that world. Let’s not lose the forest for the trees.

  10. Actually, Mike, I think you missed my point.

    You make the assumption that “nominal attendance indicates indifference, or apathy.” My comments tried to prove that one cannot just assume this.

    I am one of those “nominal attendees” and I am hardly indifferent or apathetic. And I know others as well.

    And I’m sure that your definition of “Christian incoherence” is probably not that same as mine 🙂

    I have met many people today who are challenging the “traditional” concept of Christianity and developing their own interpretation. Many traditional Christians would probably categorize them as more “heretical” than Christian.

    They do not like what we see in most “Christian” churces and gatherings today. Hence the reason they do not attend regularly.

    BTW, I happend to be one of these new Christians (for lack of a better word).


  11. Sorry Metz, perhaps I expressed myself poorly. Like you, I don’t want to focus on either the 17% who do attend church or quibble over adequacies or inadequacies of “counting”.

    What I do want to do is question your apparent equation of faith with church attendance. You say in your title heading that to change the culture, you have to change the conversation. Maybe we can start changing the conversation by severing that almost automatic assumption that Jesus is to be found on Sunday mornings in a designated church building.

    Yes, I know you also say that you wish to ‘connect Sunday to Monday.’ To the extent that we keep that location-of-Jesus housed in a designated church facility, however, the conversation will not change. You will be heard perhaps only to argue that we should “go to church” more often and/or that talking about creation, fall, redemption and consummation will bring people to church. Failure to attend church, you say, means we’re “apatheists”. I beg to differ.

    Maybe what the 83% “forest” you’d like us to focus on could take on board is that the story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation takes place right where they are – and is not limited to presenting oneself at an accepted church building, to be counted or not. Maybe then they would actually listen to the creation, fall, redemption and consummation story – and be able to see it in operation in the lives and worship of the ‘faithful’ around them.

    I hope that makes my point a bit clearer?

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