Although 13 years apart in age, Marc Pepperman, 34, and Krista Kern, 21, have a lot in common.
Both work at Tapcade, a combination bar, restaurant and video arcade in Kansas City’s Crossroads area. She’s a server; he’s a bartender.
Both have ties to the Methodist church. Pepperman’s mom was Methodist, while Kern, as a kid, chose to be baptized and confirmed into the denomination.
And, as reflected in a national survey of some 35,000 adults released Tuesday, both are part of a growing trend in the United States: Neither affiliates with any Christian denomination, and Pepperman no longer even considers himself a Christian.
“I would love to consider myself agnostic, but I’m probably atheist,” he said. “Yeah, I am. I’m atheist.”
Kern said that although she’s likely closer to Christianity than any other faith, religion is not one of the ways she defines herself. First, she thinks the term has too strong a connection to a conservative political ideology she does not agree with. Second, she has her own spiritual sense of the universe that doesn’t include a patriarchal deity.
“There’s something,” she said, “but it’s not a guy controlling us or we have to follow these certain rules. As long as you’ve got good morals, you’re not going to go where they say they’ll send you.”
The two are far from alone. In a report titled “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” the Washington-based Pew Research Center revealed Tuesday that while Christianity remains the nation’s major religion — with seven out of 10 surveyed adults identifying themselves as such — the Christian share of the population dropped from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014.
The greatest drops were among mainline Protestant religions such as Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians, which dropped from 18.1 percent of the population to 14.7 percent, and among Catholics, which the Pew study showed dropped from 23.9 percent to 20.8 percent. Other surveys have shown Catholic numbers remaining relatively steady.
Most notable in the Pew report was the spike in adults surveyed who described themselves as “unaffiliated” with any religion, a group that included atheists, agnostics and others who adhere to “nothing in particular.” That number rose more than 6 percentage points, from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent last year.
The Pew study did not offer reasons for the change, although its numbers show a significant rise among younger adults who were likely to join the unaffiliated. The numbers among adults ages 18 to 26 rose from 25 percent in 2007 to 34 percent in 2014.
At lunch Tuesday at Crown Center, Colin Madsen, 24, of Jefferson City sat with his friends, Dave Olsen, 22, of Raymore, and Mariah Scott, 19, of Kansas City.
Scott, who declared herself an atheist, said she grew up in a family of “scattered, different beliefs” that raised its children to figure out religion for themselves. One grandparent is Catholic.
“I have a brother who’s Wiccan,” she said.
Olsen said he was born and brought up Lutheran.
“I went to Sunday school for a short time,” he said. “I never did it after about 8 years old.” He described his mother as “very Christian.” He said he lost touch with organized religion after his parents’ divorce.
Madsen said he was raised by a mother who was Catholic, but who also fell away from the church. His father is Baptist and comes from a family that is “very religiously influenced,” he said.
His own sense of religion is a mixture of beliefs, a tie he considers more spiritual than anything allied with a single mainline denomination.
“I do believe in God,” Madsen said, “but I try not to characterize it.”
The Pew Center report hardly came as a surprise to clergy and church scholars who for years have noted the declining or, at best, steady memberships in many Christian denominations.
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, has been bucking the trend of declining membership for years. Besides its main sanctuary in Leawood, the church has services at four campuses across the Kansas City area. Begun in 1990 by Hamilton when he was 25 years old, the church’s combined services draw 21,000 parishioners each Sunday.
Hamilton said the decline in Christian affiliation has multiple causes, chief among them the aging population. Older parishioners are dying off and are not being replaced by younger parishioners.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Hamilton said, mainline Protestant churches purposefully moved away from pure church ritual to focus more on issues of social justice. In doing so, churches neglected to connect issues of faith to their members’ own personal lives.
“It lacked the deep personal connection to the faith,” Hamilton said.
Churches that grow, he said, create that connection.
Sherry Weddell, an author of the 2012 book “Forming Intentional Disciples” and co-founder in Colorado Springs, Colo., of the Catherine of Siena Institute, argues that the Catholic Church has hurt itself in terms of members by not being more vocal. In her book and lectures across the country, she has been pushing for a more evangelical Catholic movement.
“It isn’t enough anymore to say, ‘I was born Catholic. I have no choice,’” Weddell said. “Nobody does that anymore.”
The days of “inherited faith,” when children become Catholic simply because their parents and their grandparents were Catholic, are over, she said.
“You’re now choosing what is meaningful to you,” she said. “That means experiencing that personal encounter with God, seeing it (faith) transform people’s lives.”
Carmen Roberts, 40, of Oakland, N.J., also sat at Crown Center with her co-worker, Nicole Connelly, 30, of Jersey City, N.J. Both were in town for a convention. Roberts described herself as dyed-in-the-wool Catholic.
“I grew up Catholic. I’m a practicing Catholic, 100 percent devout,” she said.
Connelly, also born and reared Catholic, said the faith has little bearing on her life now.
“I grew up Catholic, but I don’t care enough to think about it,” she said. “Mass is boring.”
Not all faiths dropped. Non-Christian faiths, including Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, increased over 2007, from 4.7 percent of the population to 5.9 percent.
Although the percentage of those who identified themselves as evangelical Protestants decreased by about 1 percent, the rise in overall population means the number of evangelical Protestants actually increased slightly.
“I would like to think that we, as a people, are on a journey for the authentic,” said the Rev. Troy Campbell, lead pastor of the New Life CityChurch.
His nondenominational church is only doors away from the Tapcade bar near 17th and McGee streets. The evangelical Christian church believes in a literal translation of the Bible and operates on the philosophy that all people are sinners in need of the grace of God through Jesus Christ.
“When you show that love,” Campbell said, “and that that’s what Jesus is all about, you can’t keep people away.”