October 5, 2009

How “Religious” are Americans?
By Pastor George Van Alstine

Paul began his famous speech on Mars Hill in Athens with these words:

“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an Unknown God.’” (Acts 17:22-23)

Paul saw this particular monument as a symbol of how totally religious their mindset was, in that they even had an inscription to any spiritual entity inadvertently left out of their pantheon, “The Unnamed God We May Have Forgotten.” He went on to preach a powerful sermon introducing them to the god they had missed, who was, in fact, the only True God of the Universe.

Just as the ancient Athenians were known for being a religious people, so are modern Americans. In contrast to populations in other developed nations, especially in Europe, Americans pay a great deal of attention to God and religious influences in their lives. Athenians daily walked by statues, monuments and temples that reminded them of religious themes and practices. Similarly, Americans regularly encounter church buildings, crosses, religious radio and TV programs, and Biblical allusions in books, news articles, and workplace conversations. We too are a religious people.

Last Sunday’s “Parade” insert in the LA Times featured a lead article that summarized findings of a recent poll they had commissioned, using a sample of 1,051 random adult Americans. Here are some of the results I found interesting:

◆ Which of the following best describes you?

I consider myself a religious person. 45%
I’m not religious, but I observe the holidays/traditions of my religion. 17%
I’m not religious, but I’m a spiritual person. 24%
I’m neither religious nor spiritual. 14%

I think the Apostle Paul might have focused on the 24% who chose the third answer. What kind of person considers him/herself spiritual, but not religious? Are they expressing a hunger for God that has not been met by the churches or other religious groups they have encountered? Is there a way we at ABC can reach out creatively to people like this in our neighborhood?

◆ Which best explains your personal belief?

I believe in God. 69%
I believe there is some unexplained higher power. 12%
I believe there are many different gods. 4%
I believe God exists only in our heads. 4%
I’m not sure if there is a God. 7%
I do not believe in God. 5%

The first three categories of people, amounting to 85%, live their lives with a sense that there is some person or force greater than they. These people seem to be a prime mission field for a fresh, clear presentation of the gospel, which tells them how to get to know that greater force in a positive way.

◆ How often do you attend religious services?

Every day 3%
Once a week 27%
Once a month 6%
A few times a year 14%
Rarely 30%
Never 20%

This means that while Americans attend church more than most national groups, still only about one-third of us are in church on an average Sunday. Those of us who are among the one-third need to develop a greater understanding about what life is like for the other two-thirds. This is especially important in light of the answers to the next question.

◆ Do you ever pray outside of religious services?

Yes 77%
No 23%

Apparently, there are quite a number of those two-thirds non-churchgoers who cry out to God with some kind of longing or felt-need, without the support, guidance, teaching or encouragement of an organized church. This shows a lot of hunger for God.

Many Americans, though spiritually open, worship only at the altar inscribed “To an Unknown God.” It’s our great calling and privilege to be able to lead such people into a personal relationship with this God who, through Christ, can be known.

The complete “Parade” survey, along with an opportunity for interactive participation, can be found online at www.parade.con/news/2009/10/10/04-spirituality-poll-results.html