The Pew Research Center, a very good and reputable research organization, released a report late last week with this alarming title: “In U.S., Decline for Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” When a new report like this comes out, it gets desperate headlines across the nation and many in the press and elite culture see it as news worth crowing about.
But is it true? It’s an important question because the faith practice of a nation is a very important indicator of its health. Well, the answer to this question is a clear and simple “It depends” and this is precisely where the real guts of the story is found. Let me explain.
Christianity is indeed shrinking, as in fewer people saying they attend church and identify with a particular faith tradition. But from what churches are these people leaving? This is the key question that must always be asked here, for this is where the real, larger truth is found. Unfortunately, few journalists bother digging this far. Pew and all other professionals tracking such things report that the liberal denominations who’ve been compromising on the fundamentals of the faith are hemorrhaging members at a rate of 5 to 7.5 million members over the last decade or so. This is where the steep decline is, people leaving churches that are redefining Christianity into some other faith. This is actually very good news. Black congregations that tend more liberal in their politics but largely conservative in their theology are generally holding steady in terms of members. And evangelicals as a whole are seeing very little change. In fact, research conducted jointly at Harvard and Indiana University reports that “intense religion in the United States is persistent and exceptional in ways that do not fit the secularization thesis.” What they are referring to is the kind of Christianity where people live their faith very seriously, take the Bible at its word, and allow Jesus to shape their lives. Their worship is passionate because they truly believe a real Savior rescued them from real sin on a real cross over two thousand years ago. Thus, these scholars say the U.S. is indeed not going the way of much of Europe. There is a good deal of additional research from leading sociologists of religion revealing similar things, as I explain in detail in my new book The Myth of the Dying Church.
This new Pew report, for all the doom and gloom headlines, actually agrees with this more positive picture of evangelicals but I have not seen one news story that bothered to dig that far. But the information is right there, starting on page 22, for anyone to read. The percentage of Americans who identify as either “born again” or “evangelical” has not changed that much, showing just a slight decline since 2009, from 28% of all U.S. adults down to 25%. But again, there are a number of factors to consider here.
First, when compared to the larger population of Americans who identify as Protestants, Pew explains that “the share of all Protestants who are born-again or evangelical is at least as high today as it was in 2009.” Their graph on page 22 however shows the percentage of all Protestants increased from 56 to 59 percent. This is again, because those leaving Christianity are the liberalizing mainliners, not the bible-believing evangelicals. That is good news.
Second, shifts in the demographics of race are also a factor here. Most evangelicals are white, and that overall population has indeed declined modestly as a percentage of the U.S. population. This is not because there are less Caucasians, but that other races and ethnicities is growing. Thus, evangelicals as a percentage of the overall population would be expected to decline as the proportion of Whites they draw from is declining.
The final consideration here is that like the Harvard/Indiana research, Pew is not examining the faith intensity of these “evangelical” or “born-again” identity. Are we talking about very active, faithful members of this tradition bagging the church, or “evangelicals-in-name-only” finally giving up the pretense? Pew cannot tell us in this report, but there is a great deal of data to indicate this is the case because it’s the case in most other categories of people apparently leaving the faith. As Pew reported a few years ago, of those who say they no longer hold to the faith of their childhood, only 15% said they had any kind of real faith to begin with. Thus, these are people who “left” a faith they never really had in the first place. This marks a clarification of belief rather than an actual exodus. This is good news as well.
This is exactly what the story with these infamous “Nones” is. While Pew, and nearly every other report and news story, says the nones are growing at a remarkable rate, nearly all major sociologists of religion agree these nones do not represent a new group of unbelievers. Rodney Stark, one of the most respected scholars in this field, explains it very crisply, “The entire change (toward none-ness) has taken place with the nonattending group”, those who’ve previously said they belonged to a particular Christian tradition but are merely CEO Christians (Christmas and Easter only). “In other words,” Stark adds, “this change marks a decrease only in nominal affiliation, not an increase in irreligion.” Today’s nones are simply those who are now being more honest about never having had a real faith in the first place, not a newly secularized group.
So, is Christianity shrinking? It is in terms of overall numbers. But among those who really take their faith seriously, attending church weekly, study the scriptures, pray as if they believe it really does good and worship a God who’s really transforming their lives, not so much. If you go to a church where such people gather, simply ask yourself, “Is my church shrinking by the year or is it coming along nicely, perhaps even growing?” Your answer is a good indicator of what’s actually happening with muscular Christianity in the United States. As Jesus Himself told us, even the gates of hell would not prevail against His church. And His Father said His Word would not return empty. There is no reason to fret.