The Pew Forum Religious Landscape Study, an American survey of more than 35,000 people from all 50 states, first undertaken in 2007, introduced those interested in demographic trends to a group of individuals known as “the nones.” In its follow-up study completed in 2014, ‘the nones’ are increasing. Almost a quarter of the U.S. population is unaffiliated with any religious group. More than any other demographic group, those aged 18-22 years old make up more than one-third of these ‘nones.’ They are as religiously unaffiliated as the older generations were affiliated.(1)
Of course, many theories are offered to explain this phenomenon. One theory suggests that younger adults grew disillusioned with organized religion when religion began to be associated with more conservative politics. Another theory offers that the shift reflects a broader trend away from social and community involvement. The most prominent theory suggests that this is simply one more sign of the growing secularization seen in most developed countries. Meanwhile, atheists, whose numbers are on the rise, interpret the decrease in faith as a triumph of reason.
While these studies are fascinating and important, and the theories as to the reasons for the decline in Protestant and Evangelical Protestant affiliation are worthy of serious thought, I don’t believe that the only conclusion we might draw from this report is one of triumph for skeptics or discouragement for Christians.
An ancient story perhaps suggests another perception. Thousands of years ago, a prophet heard a word from the Lord. The people would be exiled, the faithful forgotten, the land destroyed by gnawing locusts, and the armies of the nations would trample down those who remained. This vision came to the prophet Joel for the people of Judah. He saw the signs all around him and interpreted their warning. Exile was at hand.
Yet despite these harrowing warnings, the prophet also spoke of blessing, abundance after want, and the abiding presence of the God who cared for his people despite the ways things looked:
“Do not fear, o land, rejoice and be glad, for the Lord has done great things….I will make up to you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the creeping locust, the stripping locust, and the gnawing locust, my great army which I sent among you….Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord your God and there is no other; and my people will never be put to shame. And it will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all people; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. And even on the male and female servants I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:21-29).
Here, in the valley of want, the prophet Joel calls to the people to “return to the Lord with all your heart with fasting, weeping and mourning; rend your heart and not your garments….For the Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness, and relenting of evil.” God’s grace and compassion will be demonstrated in the gift of the Spirit poured out lavishly on a most stubborn and willful people.
Hundreds of years later, there were another people who looked back at this ancient text from the prophet Joel and saw themselves as the recipients of this divine outpouring. They were the recipients of multiplied years. On these simple, peasant Galileans, small in number and in power, the Holy Spirit fell with tongues of fire and rushing wind. They proclaimed in native languages—not their own—the mighty deeds of God.(2) “And it shall be in the last days, God says, that I will pour forth my Spirit upon all people; and your sons and your daughters will prophesy” (Joel 2:28-29). The promise of God’s Spirit, outpoured and empowering the people fell on the feast of Pentecost, when harvest and in-gathering took place. To this relatively small gathering of individuals in Jerusalem: “…about three thousand were added to their numbers that day” (Acts 2:41). The Spirit falls and gathers home those who had been dispersed.
Of course, those initial followers, much like Joel before them, couldn’t see the ultimate horizon of the Church that was birthed that Pentecost. But these followers, small in number, were the first fruits of the outpoured Spirit, which would go forth into the uttermost parts of the earth. By the power of the Spirit, those first fruits would multiply into the Church, and the Church, the body of Christ, was unleashed into the world. The in-gathering of the nations, shown in nascent form at Pentecost, is fulfilled by the gospel going forth into the whole world through the presence and witness of the Church.
Pentecost asks those who despair or take triumph in changing demographics to consider that harvest and in-gathering are ever-present possibilities. Numbers may rise or fall, but influence does not have to wane. The earliest followers of Jesus were unleashed into the exile that was the Roman Empire. The smallness of their numbers didn’t thwart them from receiving the Spirit of the least and the last, so much so that their numbers and influence grew. Today, those who embrace the Son are the recipients of the power of the same Spirit. As we live into the kingdom by the power of this Spirit, the body of Christ can multiply with abundant fruit and harvest.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) The 2014 Religious Landscape Study, Pew Forum, conducted June 4-September 30, 2014.
(2) See Acts 2:1-13.