A Pew study revealed that roughly one in five Americans now says "none" when asked for a religious affiliation. That's way up from just five years ago when it was around 15 percent.
Most telling in the data is that religious affiliation among young people is in rapid decline. One-third of people under 30 claim none.
What are people of faith - and particularly church-going Christians - to make of this?
The first take-away seems to be the clear trend away from cultural Christianity as a defining element of this country. As more people disaffiliate from organized religion, the less pressure there will be to attend church for reasons other than wanting to be there. Cultural and social pressures that once were powerful inducements to affiliate with a religious body are no longer as significant and are likely to become even less evident in the years ahead.
Christians shouldn't see this as necessarily a bad thing. It means a higher percentage of people who do seek out or maintain a church affiliation will be there out of a genuine recognition of spiritual need rather than to meet someone else's expectations. It's likely they will be, on the whole, more serious about their faith and its application in their lives than old-style social Christians.
But there's no question that the numbers are a cause for self-reflection and self-examination among churchgoers.
Young people throughout history have been generally less loyal to and interested in organizational affiliation and authority than their elders, but that's more true today than ever. Couple that with the general erosion of trust in American institutions of all kinds across all age groups and you have a double whammy for the church.
But if we're honest with ourselves, Christians will acknowledge that when the world looks at us, it sees that in many ways our behavior looks pretty much like everybody else's. Churches can be roiled by conflict and division, engaged in self-righteous exclusion, and often more concerned about institutional self-preservation than protecting the weak and vulnerable and advancing the Gospel of Christ.
In their attempt to survive and grow, churches also fight the temptation to become just one more consumer choice, offering the customer what he or she wants rather than challenging society's "serve-me" ethos with Jesus' command of death of the self.
The evidence suggests that young Americans are spiritually hungry. What will churches feed them that is different from what the world offers? How will Christians live and act that will convince the unchurched of all ages to "come and see"?