When I became a seminary dean in 2010, polls were showing that membership and participation in traditional Christian denominations was falling. As the decade proceeded, the unraveling gathered speed. In an Oct. 17, 2019 update, Pew Research Center reported that “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Across 10 years, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as Christian is down 12 percent to 65 percent.
Meanwhile, “the religiously unaffiliated share of the population — people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’ — now stands at 26 percent, up from 17 percent in 2009.”
In recent years I’ve left to others the challenges and opportunities of running seminaries during such a time as this. This has given me more energy to focus on the reality that this isn’t just an institutional matter; it’s deeply personal. When I was growing up I don’t recall knowing anyone in my immediate circle of loved ones being other than Christian and a regular churchgoer. Now the majority of my friends and family are what I might describe, respectfully, as “achurched,” with the prefix “a” meaning an absence of.
This trend seems to be strengthening among those I love. It has perhaps also intensified as political polarization separates Christians into camps who can only shake their heads in disbelief that the other camp could be understood to be truly Christian.
This came to mind as I was discussing with one of my pastors participating in a ritual of congregational healing in preparation for treatment of a leaking aortic valve. At the same time, my wife, Joan, was working out the logistics of an informal ritual with a circle of her friends who had supported one of their group also needing heart treatment. They were now offering this ritual to me.
I value both settings, I realized. As one formed in the church before I even knew who I was, I continue to experience the power of a community gathered in Jesus’ name in hopes of offering to each other and the world at least glimpses of being the body of Christ.
And as one who has spent time traveling through many of the “a-” dynamics of our age —atheism, agnosticism, achurchgoing — I also was moved to envision support organized not against, but outside of, traditional congregational structures.
I’m grateful that at the moment I’m not responsible for envisioning how this plays out institutionally, as congregations, church schools, denominations and faith traditions wrestle with what it means to thrive — or not — amid current trends. My time of institutional leadership as the trends gathered force showed me I didn’t have failsafe initiatives.
As I ponder the personal dimensions of all this, I draw inspiration from experiencing the power of both formal and informal communities of care. When I discussed some of this with Joan, she reported wondering how even informal communities of healing will continue to be available, given how often they spend capital inherited from formalized faith settings.
So I hope, instead of pitting them against each other, as we sometimes do, we can be flexible enough to learn about the gifts each type of community brings. I hope we can be enriched by comparing and contrasting the life stories that cause each of us to navigate the joys and dangers of being churched or achurched.
Michael A. King is publisher of Cascadia Publishing House and blogs at Kingsview & Co., cascadiapublishinghouse.com/KingsviewCo.