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.