“For every one American who consistently rejects religion, there are two who are on the fence about it.”
That’s the claim of an article published yesterday at Christianity Today, and the article is worth a read for those of us concerned about Christian ministry. It deals with one of the basic limitations in the research methods we tend to use when gathering information for ministry.
Bradley Wright, the author, tackles the idea of cross-sectional surveys for religious affiliation. In other words, a bunch of people are asked to fill out a survey, the answers are discreet (as in yes/no) and someone has to decide right then if they are religious or not. For some of us, that is not a problem. I will always answer yes. I would always answer yes to even narrower questions concerning my faith. I am a committed evangelical, Baptist in specific, Christian who does not waver on that conviction when asked. On the other side of the fence are those committed “nones” who claim no religious affiliation, who may be atheistic or agnostic. However, what about all of those in the middle who are confused about their faith. Maybe they grew up in church and are disenfranchised with it, or perhaps they typically verbalize to people they are agnostic but in their gut are wrestling with the idea that there has to be something more out there. In a cross-sectional survey, these people are forced one way or the other. And that matters.
Wright notes that a binary (yes/no) on the religion question masks the people in between to the two poles. Of course, from a confessional standpoint, we know that people are redeemed or not. However, when it comes to understanding our context for mission, it paints a different picture when we consider the “in-betweeners.” The article follows a study that accounts for a liminal category between yes and no. That study indicates that 20 percent of the American population are wrestling with whether or not they are religious.
That changes the picture, does it not? So often, our typical surveys make us think people are either committed Christians or sternly against the subject of religion altogether. Considering the liminal, or in-between, category reveals that 1 out of 5 Americans are dabbling with the idea. That is an opportunity for evangelism. That kind of survey reveals many around us who are on a threshold, as Wright says, instead of convincing that more people do not want to hear our message.
Make sure you visit the article and use this kind of data to inform how we think of our mission and how we speak to our congregations about evangelism.