It is a fascinating time to be a student of religious trends. As a new church pastor, I've relied on my intuition that is itself informed by conversations with colleagues, friends, and the people of Downtown Church. Everyone, including me, has an opinion on why people aren't going to church as often as they once did. This generalization is undoubtedly true, but there are other factors including age, gender, race, and geography that render broad judgments unhelpful.
The good news is that social science researchers are exploring the trends with renewed interest. We don't have to trust our intuition to the same degree because we now have access to empirical data collected by reputable resources. Robert Putnam and David Campbell recently published a massive study on religious trends that catapulted the conversation forward. I haven't read any of the 688 pages of American Grace yet but the major findings rejected some of those intuitive hunches we assumed as fact. Still, I'm not sure how helpful the research is for local churches discerning how to communicate the never-changing Gospel to the ever-changing community that surrounds them. Marketers collect demographic data specific to local contexts and churches can access the reports at a steep price, but the reports aren't specific to religion and faith. A local context must still be studied the old-fashion way, by walking the streets, talking to strangers in cafes, and reading the local newspaper.
USA Today gets close to the local context with this interactive map presented in collaboration with The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The graphic above is a snapshot of South Carolina. Clicking it will send you to the original map and if you mouse over individual states, the data on the right side will change.
Did anything surprise you? Let us know in the comments below.