“I’m going to church tomorrow,” Natalie Schwinn remembers her husband saying as they fell asleep one night in fall 2007.
She wasn’t expecting it.
The roof top cross at the Roncalli Newman Center.
Scott Weaver grew up a Christmas-Easter churchgoer, if that, and as an adult had toyed with atheism before developing a Buddhist practice.
Schwinn had stopped going to church at age 16.
Although she always believed in God, she had at times found Christianity irrelevant, even ridiculous, and generally hadn’t felt a need for religion.
But when her husband said those words, something happened in Schwinn.
“I remember this feeling in my body,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh, finally.’ It took my breath away.”
These two, like many, found their way to church after living decades outside organized religion.
But a growing number are remaining beyond the reaches of Christianity and other religions.
Take Mitch Irvin.
The 43-year-old stopped going to Catholic Mass at age 13 and never looked back.
“I certainly don’t have anything against anyone who goes to church. It was just my personal choice to exit a contradiction,” Irvin said.
His studies of Christianity showed him “a violent, bloody thing,” he said. “Bombing for peace makes no sense when you consider that Christ appeared to be telling us to love and tolerate each other.”
While Christianity remains the majority religion in this country by a long shot, the growing ranks of people like Irvin have researchers, writers, pastors and professors paying attention.
Commonly referred to as the “nones” or “unchurched,” those who don’t identify with a religion went from making up 8.2 percent of the population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.
“It used to be that as younger people got older, they’d re-affiliate, and that’s happening less often now,” said Darren Sherkat, a sociology professor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
The religious identification survey indicates Christians made up 76 percent of the U.S. adult population in 2008, compared with 86 percent in 1990. Nones are the second-largest “religious” group.
Sherkat named a number of possible reasons for this trend: an agrarian nation that has become urban, with more opportunities for social interaction than church; religion getting mixed up in politics; sex scandals; and strength in numbers allowing more people to admit they aren’t religious.
Sherkat is atheist.
According to the General Social Survey, from 1988 to 2008, 18.7 percent of Americans never attended church. Of those, 7.5 percent were atheists and 11.7 percent were agnostics. Atheists do not believe in God, and agnostics believe it is impossible to know whether God exists.
Many more, though, still believe in God or a higher power, even if they’re not in church.
Robert Fuller, author of the 2001 book “Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America,” said it’s difficult to determine precise numbers on who is religious and who isn’t.
Many of the unchurched, for example, will show up in church today for Easter services.
He estimates about 40 percent of the American population doesn’t have a meaningful affiliation or regularly attend Jewish or Christian worship services.
But that doesn’t mean 40 percent of us aren’t asking religious questions, he said.
“I look at it less that people are moving away from older sources than I do moving toward newer sources,” Fuller said. “I think the overall religious and spiritual interests of Americans is not declining. It’s just shifting a bit, and people have turned to many new sources to supplement Judaism and Christianity.”
That’s true of Irvin, who says he is not anti-Jesus but anti-Christianity. “We can call this an enlightened age,” he said. “I cannot be part of a church, yet I can have a relationship with Jesus.”
Irvin also has found Vipassana meditation and spiritual writers such as George Gurdjieff useful in his seeking.
The Rev. Mark Pierce, pastor at Roncalli Catholic Newman Center on State Street, said the pattern he noticed early in his ministry was that families raised their children in faith, some children stepped away from church life as they reached adolescence and young adulthood, and then after marrying and having children would return to the faith of their upbringing.
But since his ordination 27 years ago, Pierce has seen a change: more people are not coming back.
No one reason can explain the shift, he said, naming a host of factors ranging from a mass media that challenges religiosity to personal laziness to failures of church leaders.
The church has not always been attentive in responding to people seeking, he said.
“There are people who long for solitude and mysticism. Well, we’ve got something in our (tradition) about that, but you don’t often hear that on Sunday. You have people who want social action. We have that, too, but we have an image problem.”
In 2005, of the 43,131 baptized members of the La Crosse Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, only 10,781 regularly worshipped in 2005, according to national ELCA numbers.
Some, though, do seek their way back to church.
Weaver, 36, found working the land and growing food, which he began to do in his mid-20s, a deeply spiritual experience.
He was also drawn to social justice, and after reading Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, sought out the Newman Center.
Motherhood awoke something in 32-year-old Schwinn.
“I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do,” she said. “You just have to be so selfless, especially when they are so little. What became of that wasn’t that I became emptied out or dried up. … I noticed that in this complete losing of myself I never felt more healthy spiritually, emotionally, physically. And to me, I feel like that’s what Catholicism speaks about all the time.”
Weaver practices contemplative prayer each evening, and Schwinn prays mornings at 4 a.m.
In a way, the most recent religious identification survey might be good news for churches.
While the number of “nones” was at 15 percent last year, the increase since 2001 was only 0.8 percent.
And when it comes to religion, the numbers perhaps say less than the stories of people such Irvin, who believes in God, just not the way the church handed it to him; as Schwinn and Weaver, who have continued to attend the Newman Center for 1 1/2 years; or as their friend Sarah Smith.
The 28-year-old Smith grew up Catholic but stopped going to church mid-college.
Smith struggles with the exclusivity of Christianity, she said.
“We just don’t believe there’s one right way and if you don’t follow that way, then you’re going to hell.”
She and her husband, who grew up Methodist, have tried the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
He doesn’t attend any church right now, and she goes to Cornerstone Community Church about twice a month, and is especially drawn to its social ministries.
“I’m still in that sort of figuring-out phase,” said Smith, who doesn’t identify herself as a Christian. “I’m not closed to Christianity. I’d say I’m really open to everything. But I haven’t figured out exactly what my own beliefs are, so it’s hard to find a church in the meantime.”