I saw a tweet from Joel Rainey that encapsulated the coverage of the recent Pew Reseach statistics. He observed it was like people were reading two different sets of poll results.
On the one hand, you had CNN crowing “Millennials leaving the church in droves,” because of their glee that it would give less hope to religious right candidates. The New York Times echoed with “Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christians.” They managed to avoid attaching any smiley-face emoticons in their post, which I thought was a nice touch. They see the raw data and make their conclusion, that there is a large drop in the number of Americans who are identifying themselves as Christians.
Are they wrong? Are they misinterpreting the data? Not really, no. It is true. In America today the rise of the “nones” is an undeniable trend. There are a lot more people who do not identify as Christians, who refuse to affiliated with any church or faith. We did not really need a poll from Pew Research to tell us that. In 1965, you’d have had a hard time finding someone who didn’t self-identify as a Christian. It was expected, even demanded.
But there is more to these numbers than the gleeful analysis of the skeptics would indicate. To understand the research more fully, we need to look at the article written by our own good doctor, Ed Stetzer, who puts everything in perspective in an article at Christianity Today entitled, “Nominals to Nones: 3 Key Takeaways from Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey.” He doesn’t fault the data, the research done by Pew or their methods. He simply asks us to look a little more closely at what the data shows us.
He makes three conclusions.
1. Convictional Christianity is rather steady.
He has been saying this for a long time. What is “dying” in America is cultural, nominal Christianity. It is not “real” Christianity that is fading – the percentages of those who are committed to the Christian faith are holding steady. It is those who called themselves Christians but had no real involvement, conviction, or commitment to the faith where the decreases are taking place.
2. There have been significant shifts within American Christianity.
The most significant of these, he says, is the “evangelicalization” of the church. As the nominals leave, a greater percentage of the church is evangelical. According to Pew,
“The evangelical Protestant tradition is the only major Christian group in the survey that has gained more members than it has lost through religious switching.”
Strangely, the only part of the country where evangelicalism dwindled was in the South. I hope the good Doctor will give SOUTHERN Baptists some more research, analysis and opinion on that fact!
Contrary to rumors, we are holding on to a high percentage of our children, though I wish the percentage approached 100%!
Stetzer admits that all is not well within evangelicalism, but it seems that the reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.
3. Mainline Protestantism continues to hemorrhage.
The death of the mainline churches has not been exaggerated, evidently! Those churches that have left behind biblical moorings are dying quickly and nothing seems likely to reverse that trend.
Perspectives, Responses and Observations
There are two ways we can go when we see rapid shifts and changes in thought in a culture. We can long for how things used to be or we can prepare for how things are and how they are going to be. We could spend every day until New Year’s 2050 arguing over how we “lost” America and it wouldn’t change a thing. Some would say that the church erred in becoming an arm of the Religious Right and over-engaging in the Culture Wars. Others would counter that we lost because we didn’t fight hard enough and if we’d only done more we’d have won the war.
And while we argued, our culture will continue its moral and spiritual slide. What good does it do to argue the post-mortem. We have to deal with what is here, with the reality of life in this present world.
1. America is NOT (any longer) a Christian Nation.
If you wish, you can engage in the David Barton vs. academia argument over whether Christianity was ever officially a Christian nation. That is now a theoretical discussion. No reasonable argument can be made that we live in a Christian nation today. In fact, we live in a nation which is increasingly showing hostility toward Christianity, is limiting the expression of religious expression and especially Christian practice and is threatening to sanction convictional Christianity.
This is not your grandma’s USA.
2. Christianity is NOT culturally demanded anymore.
There was a time when it was pretty much expected that one give at least lip-service to Christianity. Now, it can almost be the opposite. Someone with basic Christian beliefs (Jesus is the only way to heaven, all people are sinners, homosexuality is a sin, etc) would have a hard time getting elected to public office. Ed Stetzer made this observation.
For example, the cultural cost of calling yourself “Christian” is starting to outweigh the cultural benefit, so those who do not identify as a “Christian” according to their convictions are starting to identify as “nones” because it’s more culturally savvy.
In the past, people identified as Christians because it was to their advantage to do so – it was expected of them, required of them, even if they did not feel any commitment to the faith. But now that such commitment may cost them instead of helping them, nominals will continue to make the shift to nones – in droves!
3. We are becoming what Christianity has always been.
Dr. Stetzer (Oh, come on, let’s call him Ed), describes this as losing our “home-field advantage.” We have come to expect our nation to honor our views and our faith. But American (Western) Christianity has been the historical aberration. Our forefathers have lived in catacombs and worshiped in secret. They have feared the knock on the door in the middle of the night. We are upset at the thought of losing our tax exemptions, but in that we are simply getting a taste of what many Christians worldwide live today, and what Christians have lived throughout the history of the Church.
4. Being the “prophetic minority” instead of the “moral majority” is not all bad.
No, I’d like to see ever man, woman, boy and girl in America saved. But it might not be all bad to see nominal Christianity fade. As those who are Christians in name only leave the faith, we may find a more serious, focused and passionate faith.
The old missionaries in Taiwan prayed passionately for the saints they’d left behind when the Communists took over. Their expectation, during the years of Communist oppression, was that they were likely holding on for dear life. When China opened again decades after we’d moved back to the USA, they found an amazing this. During the Cultural Revolution, during Mao’s brutal repression, perhaps the greatest revival in history had taken place. It had problems. The lack of Bibles led to a lot of heresy, but Christianity thrived during those years.
None of us wants persecution, but the history of the church shows that this is the norm and the persecuted church is often a purified church. That purified church can become a powerful church.
5. The answer is NOT to become like the mainline churches!
“If the church is going to survive, we’ve got to give up our archaic morality!” It is ultimate ecclesiological non-sequitur. We are told by many on the “evangelical left” that if we are to survive, we must become more like the mainline churches. We have to give up those things that cause us to offend
- The exclusivity of Christ. We ought not be arrogant to proclaim that Jesus is the only way or that we have the only truth.
- Our moral stands. We ought not place such a priority on sexual morality that has been abandoned by our culture. The idea of abstinence before marriage or traditional marriage between a man and a woman – these things drive a wedge between us and those who need Christ. Our morality negatively impacts our mission.
- Gender issues. Our belief that God made men and women different, that gender roles are not just social constructs, this must be set aside!
- We must abandon confrontational evangelism – that which calls sinners to repent and come to God for mercy. No one wants to hear that message. We need a positive message of love and self-esteem, not all this negativity of sin and repentance.
The list is long. We are told that we must abandon biblical doctrine to maintain our relevance in American culture. And yet the evidence on that is pretty strong. The only “Christianity” that is not dying in America is convictional evangelicalism.
6. The opportunities for evangelism are there!
Who were the hardest people to evangelize? Nominal Christians, right? They were inoculated from the real faith by their minimal involvement in a church to which they had no commitment. Now, these folks are what they are. They may be harder to minister to, less interested, hard to reach. But they are there and they need Jesus.
7. The answer is simple Christianity.
Preach the gospel. Love others in Christ’s name. Pray for power. Make disciples. Walk in the power of the Spirit. Don’t depend on programs, on celebrity pastors or any other human construct. Live Jesus daily. Don’t become weary in doing good.
We’ve fallen through the looking glass, folks. We can long for the (perhaps fictional) America of nostalgia, but it isn’t the one we are living in. We are in a post-Christian, increasingly anti-Christian, biblically-ignorant, morally-insensate world. We have to re-calibrate our ministries and approaches. The home-field advantage is gone. We are reverting to a first-century culture of paganism and hostility and we need to rediscover a first-century Christianity.
What’s your take?