The Pew survey on religious affiliation has landed like a bomb within the internet and the subsequent explosion has invited much discussion within the past week over the shrapnel.
“The Christian share of adults in the United States has declined sharply since 2007, affecting nearly all major Christian traditions and denominations, and crossing age, race and region, according to an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center. Seventy-one percent of American adults were Christian in 2014, the lowest estimate from any sizable survey to date, and a decline of 5 million adults and 8 percentage points since a similar Pew survey in 2007,” reported the New York Times. The survey included 35,000 adults.
Religious leaders, pundits and other interested parties are working to interpret and dissect what appears to be a considerable, generalized worldview change within our culture.
The rise of the “nones” or people with no stated religious affiliation has stunned many commentators because of the category’s rate of growth. “And in Pew’s most surprising finding, those identifying as atheists, agnostics or ‘nothing in particular’ rose to 22.8 percent of respondents, a total seven-year increase of 6.7 percent. The ‘nothing in particular’ camp — called ‘religiously ambivalent’ — saw the greatest increase, gaining 3.7 percent of Americans,” noted Ivan Plis for “The Daily Caller”.
With a growing amount of secularization, Christianity Today honed in on one specific category of US Protestants which, they demonstrate, has remained relatively steady: that of Evangelicals. “Over the past seven years, evangelicals have lost less than 1 percent of their share of the population, holding steady at about 1 in 4 American adults (25.4% in 2014, vs. 26.3% in 2007) and preserving their status as the nation’s largest religious group…Evangelical churches also added more than 2 million people to their ranks, up from 59.8 million in 2007 to 62.2 million in 2014. Meanwhile, mainline churches lost 5 million people. ‘As a result, evangelicals now constitute a clear majority (55%) of all US Protestants,’ noted Pew.”
And Ross Douthat, an op-ed columnist and author of the insightful book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” writes, “What’s in steepest decline is affiliation, not religious practice. What we’re clearly seeing happen, in Bible Belt environs as well as on the liberal coasts, is people who once would have identified as Christians socially (as Christmas-and-Easter Methodists, cultural Catholics, etc.) are now dropping the label altogether…Instead, what’s happening is that American Christianity is losing more and more of its penumbra while retaining more of its core (albeit an aging core, in many cases) than trends in identification alone suggest.”
No matter what elements of data commentators may choose to bring out in the survey or regardless of how numbers are spun, the decline of Christianity in America appears to be moving forward. Prophetic, future-telling imaginations may be invoked to suggest that once the Millennial generation grows up, they will return to the faith but there are no guarantees of what the future will hold for Biblical faith in America.
What are the trends/ideas/general aspects causing Christianity’s decline? There is talk about the politicization of Christianity- specifically by the right wing although the left is not foreign to this hijacking either- being a significant culprit toward turning people off to the church. Science has been mentioned as moving people away from faith and presumably toward a philosophical naturalism however, if this is the case, a naturalistic worldview is a philosophy, not necessarily provable according to the scientific method. Sexuality or changing morals related to “getting it on” in the aftermath of the sexual revolution may be another culprit in turning people away from the Christian faith.
Sorting through these articles reminded me of a retreat I went on with Seed Church this year. The guest speaker was Kent Carlson who pastors Oak Hills Church in Folsom, California. During the first session, he stated- my paraphrase-, “Christendom in America, as we know it, is over. And this could be a very great thing.” He went on to describe how the Christian faith has often flourished as a minority religion and, in the past, even as an illegal faith in other places.
I imagine that the only individuals threatened by a survey implying that less of America is Christian are those who want to use Jesus and His Kingdom values as a “power religion”. These are the groups and personalities who take hot-button political issues like abortion or same-sex marriage or other political topics and use them as a litmus test for judging whether someone has true faith in Christ. Historically, these political groups have used Christians as a reliable voting bloc for their political agenda. This appears to be phasing out and that is, indeed, a positive thing. Jesus Himself stated to Pontius Pilate in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” As a side note: I’m not saying Christians should not vote or be involved in the political process. Obviously, we should look to Christ and our values however we must also recognize that the Body of Christ can be quite diverse related to political opinions for 21st century America.
With Christianity apparently in decline, nothing changes about the mission of the church: loving God, loving our neighbors, sincerely trying to help the poor while discussing and seeking to change the factors that create poverty, being an advocate for orphans and widows, choosing empathy for people who are oppressed, and dialoguing about our Savior Jesus to people interested in talking.
The beautiful picture of church life communicated in Acts 2:42-47 will prayerfully continue regardless of whether Christianity as a whole is in decline: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”