By Paula Stone Williams
A study published by LifeWay Research said between 2007 and 2014 the number of religiously unaffiliated adults in the United States increased from 16 to 23 percent.
In the past this "religiously unaffiliated" group was a demilitarized zone between the religiously affiliated and the unreligious. Their increasing numbers may be representative of any number of phenomena. Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, suggests many of the religious affiliated no longer want to be identified with the increasingly polarized religious landscape. I mean, who could blame them. Do you want to be identified with Evangelicals supporting Donald Trump?
More and more people are creating as much distance as possible between themselves and the institution they see polarizing American society. Those Millennials you thought might return to church when they had kids - well they are not likely to do so without some changes.
E. O. Wilson is a Pulitzer Prize winning sociobiologist at Harvard University. Wilson identified the tribe as the critical unit of social necessity for the human species. Wilson identified nine eusocial species that have what Wilson calls a "tribal gene." They will sacrifice themselves for the sake of the tribe. But Wilson says there is a fundamental problem. Humans are the only one of the eusocial species that has evolved to believe we need an enemy for the tribe to survive. Where there is no enemy we create one. If we do not reverse that trend, Wilson believes it could spell the end of the species and the planet.
This need to create enemies where none exist is one of the great crises of modern religion. We shake our heads as Shiites and Sunnis wipe each other out with abandon, but turn a blind eye to Christians who figuratively do the same. We claim our exclusionary stance is based on scripture, but on closer examination it appears more often based on isolationism.
A good-hearted Evangelical recently asked how I could be opposed to pedophilia but supportive of LGBT relationships. I have been asked that question on several occasions. While this thoughtful and gracious person's question was more nuanced than others, I still had the same response. Pedophiles harm innocent children, always, while LGBT people do not. LGBT can indeed misuse sex in the same way straight people can misuse sex, but it is not an inherent part of being in a gay relationship any more than it is an inherent part of being in a straight relationship.
Many critics of marriage equality have not had contact with people in healthy LGBT relationships. If you have no contact with LGBT individuals it is easy to develop straw people, predators who are a threat to American society. You create reasons to hate the people you believe the apostle Paul writes against in the first chapter of his letter to the church at Rome. "That's a pretty nasty group he identifies" you say, "and it includes homosexuals. So they must be predators or something pretty awful." The raw facts, of course, are LGBT folks are pretty normal. Spend some time with us. It will become obvious.
I preached at my church last Sunday (highlandschurchdenver.org.) Highlands is six years old with about 850 attendees. When you look over the audience, some 40 percent of whom are LGBT, you are struck by absolutely nothing except their eagerness to hear the Gospel. Highlands is an ordinary group of moms, dads, executives, school principals, teachers, psychotherapists and others who laugh at the same jokes you do, cry at the same movies you watch, and want to be a part of the ministry of reconciling the creation to the creator, just as you do.
I do not want to have any more debates with Evangelicals about LGBT issues. I just want them to come to my church every Sunday for a year and see if they hold the same theology at the end of that year that they held at the beginning. Proximity enhances understanding.
Unfortunately that is not likely to happen, as the Evangelical subculture is becoming more and more of an isolated ghetto. As it withdraws from culture its influence is diminished. For instance, the Evangelical world is behind many of the laws recently introduced to deny basic rights to transgender people. But only a handful of those laws stand a chance of being passed. The broader culture has moved on. Yet angry Evangelicals remain locked in their ideological fortresses determined to create enemies where they simply do not exist.
No wonder more and more Americans are religiously unaffiliated. We do not need fear and isolationism. We do not need tribes creating enemies where none exist. We do need tribes of trust who realize we are in this together. We need communities of faith in which the religiously unaffiliated feel at home. We need hope.
For 35 years I worked with the Orchard Group, a church planting ministry in New York. For most of that time I was Chairman and CEO. For 12 years I served as a weekly columnist and Editor-At-Large for Christian Standard, a leadership magazine. I was also a teaching pastor for two megachurches. Those responsibilities ended when I transitioned to live as Paula.
I currently serve as a pastoral counselor, church and non-profit consultant, writer and speaker.
I am a runner, hiker, and avid mountain biker. The first two are relatively safe. The third, not so much. Still, I pedal. Cathy and I have been together for 42 years. She is a retired public school teacher and a practicing psychotherapist. We have three children and five grandchildren.
You may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.