A massive new study of the American religious landscape reveals big changes and powerful trends shaping the future. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life surveyed 35,000 Americans in one of the largest research projects yet undertaken.

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey report is over 140 pages long, but the Pew Center for Research has provided a helpful summary. Among the major findings:

Here is a particularly important section of the report:

More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion — or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, roughly 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.

The first wave of media reports pointed to this section of the report, while pointing to the larger issue of religious diversity and the growth of “nothing in particular” as a response.  The “switching” phenomenon was a leading focus of the report summary, with Pew researchers arguing that “religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse and extremely fluid.”

What are we to make of this?  The report is a credible and extensive review of the American religious landscape.  Taken as a whole, the data point to big changes on the horizon.  The loss of a Protestant majority will lead to further adjustments in the cultural worldview.  Clearly, America is more of a mission field than ever before.

There are some caveats about the research as well.  These affiliations are self-reported, meaning that some of the individuals may have little affiliation, knowledge, or commitment behind these identifications. Nevertheless, that has always been a limitation on these surveys.

The issue of “switching” should attract a great deal of interest.  In one sense, this is the inevitable product of religious liberty and religious diversity.  But it also reveals that many Americans are looking for something they have not found in the tradition and affiliation of their childhood.

Even so, the research methodology probably understates this phenomenon.  A member of a liberal Presbyterian church who switches to a conservative Presbyterian church is still a constant Presbyterian in the survey.

Evangelical Christians and churches should look at this report closely.  There is a wealth of data here that helps to define the mission field we face in America.  There are danger signs.  Here are several points of concern:

All this reminds us of the complexity of our context and the immensity of our challenge.  We cannot look at this data with mere interest.  These numbers represent real people who desperately need to hear the Gospel — and to see authentic Christianity made visible.