SPECIAL REPORT: Losing our religion?

SPECIAL REPORT: Losing our religion?

(WTVM) - Gateway Church in Columbus has been growing. So is the number of Americans exercising their right not to worship.

"The new normal today is...'I don't have any religion," said Pastor Loyd Johnson with Gateway Church.

"I think it's a wakeup call to the church," said Pastor Robert Beckum.

Local pastor Jeff Murphy and his wife launched myChurch 4 years ago, with non-denominational contemporary services. He sees many more people searching for spirituality in places outside the church...troubled by the trend away from religion and God.

"I think the word Christian is a turnoff," said Pastor Jeff Murphy. "There's plenty of people bruised up by the church of by individuals who were mean or angry to them."

Polling by the Pew Research Center reveals, Americans who have no particular religious affiliation, also known as the "nones," has jumped from 15 percent to nearly 20 percent or 46 million people, in just the last 5 years. We asked "Why?"

Charlette Baker of Columbus says she has faith, but maybe not in the church anymore, because of its bad reputation.

"Church don't really have a good look anymore," said Charlette. "They say go to church for the money, the pastor's doing it for the money."

Walt Williams, who grew up deeply religious, has been an atheist for 10 years now and is president of a growing group called Columbus Freethinkers. He's not surprised by the Pew results.

"It was through studying the Bible that I found out I didn't really agree with it," Walt said. "The biggest misconception that the religious have about the non-religious, going back to that question - What happened? It's not that anything happened, I simply don't believe you and there's nothing you're going to do that's going to change my mind."

"Even I've had my doubts, but I still go to church, I still go on Sundays, but I work, so if I can't make it, I can't make it," said Rylleigh Harstad, CSU student.

For generations, it's been tradition to dress up like this, maybe attend a church with columns, but times are definitely changing. In fact, a third of adults under the age of 30 are not affiliated with any religion...and Pew researchers say that's only going to go on the rise.

"I think it (people with no religious affiliation) will explode in growth as you see this next generation come into maturity," said Pastor Robert Beckum with St. Luke United Methodist Church.

"No longer are we hushed into silence, so more and more people are saying wait, there's an alternative," said Walt.

And it's not just atheists or agnostics. Pew found, of those who don't affiliate with a religion, most are not actively seeking another church home, signaling a permanently broken tie with organized religion.

The study showed the percentage of Protestants in the U.S. has reached an all-time low of 48 percent.

Troy Vidal teaches politics and religion at Columbus State University. He says even the South is seeing a shift away from the traditional church. Some experts point to religion's association with conservative politics on social issues.

"It's both hard for political parties and religions to deal with these moral issues, because young Americans just kinda tune out and much more accepting of social changes taking place in our society," said CSU professor Troy Vidal.

"They really want a place where they can be accepted, and I think there's a big issue with that in the church today," said Pastor Jeff Murphy.

"We have lagged behind the changes in our society," said Pastor Loyd Johnson.

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow but the church cannot afford to be the same yesterday or tomorrow as it is today," said Pastor Robert Beckum.

The pastor of the traditional St. Luke United Methodist church in Columbus tells us many people may feel betrayed or let down by institutional faith...and one size doesn't fit all when it comes to church.

So, how do they get or keep people in the pews? Local pastors say a building or program or denomination is not the answer ...but it's about understanding changes in today's culture, relevant messages...and being more friendly, not confrontational.

"It is something we have to be aggressive about...we want our younger generation to know that you are going to be 100% welcomed here," said Pastor Jeff Murphy.

"Rather than abandoning tradition, we have to add more options and be more creative to embrace a broader spectrum of people," said Pastor Robert Beckum.

"We need to make a stronger case for the Gospel, we need to retool our message, because the interest is still there," said Pastor Loyd Johnson.

The interest is evident by the record numbers that recently watched The Bible miniseries on the History Channel; 68 percent of the so-called "nones" say they do believe in God.

"Even though they're non-denominational or no preference, Americans are still very religious people, particularly compared to Western Europe," said CSU professor Troy Vidal.

"People are still curious," said Pastor Loyd Johnson. "Whether they've identified themselves with a certain religion or not, they're still curious about The Bible."

The number of atheists and agnostics is slowly growing, now up to six percent of the U.S. population.

Meanwhile, thousands or churches open every year...but thousands more are also closing their doors.

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