A less popular faith

The largest religious groups in the United States received some difficult news in a recent survey. Mainline Protestant, Catholic and evangelical Christians all dropped in numbers over the past several years, according to the Pew Research Center’s report, America’s Changing Religious Land­scape. Mainline Protestants—such as Presbyterians and Methodists—saw the largest decrease. Overall, the effect was a drop in the number of people calling themselves Christian from 78 percent in 2007 to less than 71 percent today.

In the Pew report, Anabaptists were counted among Protestants, evangelical or mainline depending on the denomination. (Curiously, it lists Mennonite Brethren but not Mennonite Church USA among Anabaptist groups.)

“Significant minorities of those raised in nearly all Protestant denominational families now say they are unaffiliated” with any religious tradition, researchers wrote. “The only exception to this pattern is the Anabaptist denominational family; just 5 percent of those raised Anabaptist now identify as religious ‘nones.’ ”

While the report does not break down the numbers there between plain and mainstream Anabaptists, one can imagine the high retention rate is largely due to plain groups. Now, there’s much for those of us who are not plain to learn from those who are, but I’m not sure there’s a principle here to apply in all of our communities. I imagine that being raised in a community that is so distinct from the world would make leaving difficult, for better or for worse.

Yet all of us Anabaptists do have something crucial to offer to the conversation with our siblings and cousins in other branches of the Christian family tree. We’ve never been dominant, except perhaps in the times and places where we’ve blended in with the larger Christian groups and let our distinctives blur.

Perhaps what we have to learn from this report, and also to teach, is that the task of Christian communities is not to be big or to run the show or to exert great influence. Our calling is to be faithful to the gospel, including at times when it’s unpopular and in places where it’s dangerous.

My hope for all of us—both Anabaptists and in the broader body of Christ—is that each congregation and denomination would focus its energies on discerning its calling from the Holy Spirit and live that out. If we do that, along with loving justice and mercy and walking humbly with the Lord, what more is required?

As a journalist and a minister, I listen to people around the country talk about their longings in life. The main theme I hear from younger and older people, richer and poorer, is a desire for a community that cares—about the people in that community and those in need, “the neighbor far away, and the stranger near at hand,” as one of my favorite hymns puts it.

Some who crave that kind of community prefer it without religion, or at least without one religion exclusively. Some hear what Christian communities have to offer and decline it. Does that distress some of us who follow Jesus? If we trust a God who is faithful, what do we have to fear?

Our Anabaptist heritage offers us a treasure trove for living out our callings without being dominant. Let’s not buy into the idea popular among some that we should be worried if—or when—the day comes that the majority of people in the U.S. no longer embrace the word “Christian” for themselves.