You may have heard that American Christianity is heading down the toilet.
That, at least, is the conclusion many are drawing from the data released by the Pew Research Center earlier this month. In a follow-up to their landmark 2007 study on religion in America, the PRC conducted a follow-up survey, in which they interviewed another 35,000 people. In doing so, they gleaned some of the most nuanced data ever collected on the changing religious beliefs, practices and self-descriptions of Americans. (Here’s the 2015 report.)
Since its release two weeks ago, the data has been interpreted, parsed, blogged, and shared. In an impressive demonstration of socio-cultural awareness among my parishioners, a few of them have asked me if I have any opinion on this information. To be honest, I have been too distracted by the sudden spat of injuries on the St. Louis Cardinals to care much about Christianity in America. But when asked, I decided to take a look at the data in order to rejoin the movement. And while I was going to blog this week on my surprising discovery of a hidden passage in Scripture that outlines the exact time, date, and location of Jesus’ return, I’ll put that post on hold for a couple weeks to discuss the Pew results. (Although if you find me in Akron, Ohio, on October 23rd, 2015, at 3:18 PM, you’ll know why I’m there….)
The Study and Key Findings
The report is 200 pages long. But its key statistical conclusions are:
- The total percentage of Christians in the US population is still quite massive, but has declined sharply in a relatively brief period of time, from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Looking at the population numbers, this is a net decline of about 5 million souls lost forever to the fires of hell.
- Within Christianity, Mainline Protestants—including such denominations as the United Methodist Church, most Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations, and others—declined the most sharply, from 18.1% to 14.7%, or -3.4%. Catholicism also showed steep decline, from 23.9% to 20.8%, or -3.1%.
- Within Christianity, while Mainline Protestants and Catholics lost ground, Evangelical Protestants and Historically black Christian levels remained steady, or at least within the margin of error. Evangelical Protestants dropped .9% from 26.3% to 25.4%, and historically black Christian affiliation dropped from 6.9% to 6.5%.
- Meanwhile, the percentage of people identifying as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular” (also called religious “nones”—not “nuns,” mind you) has increased sharply, from 16.1% in 2007 to 22.8% in 2014.
- In addition to an increase in atheists, agnostics, and “nones,” the age of those unaffiliated is decreasing markedly, while the age of Christians is increasing. The median age of unaffiliated Millenials (those born between 1980 and 2000) has decreased from 38 years old in 2007 to 36 yo in 2007. (The average age of the adult population is 46.) The average age mainline Protestant adults was 50 in 2007 but is not 52, and the median age for Catholic adults is 49, but was 45 in the 2007 study.
- The United States was once solidly a Protestant majority, but now no longer officially is. In 2007, 51.3% of the population identified as Protestant. In 2014 only 46.5% of the population so identified. Protestants would still win an election, but not with 50% of the vote. It would take a runoff.
Like I said, the report is 200 pages long and breaks the numbers down even further, alongside other statistics of ethnicity, education, and income levels. But those are the highlights, and they have caused all sorts of analysts and experts to wonder…Why? Why is the number of Christians in America in such steep decline? And why have the religiously unaffiliated made such gains…especially when they’re not even organized enough (by definition) to build a movement!
Nobody really knows the answer to those questions, at least not from what can be deduced by the Pew results. (The Pew surveys didn’t ask why people stopped going to church—just if people had.) Hence, it’s all (mostly) speculation. Nonetheless, everybody’s got their theories. In an interesting interview done with Notre Dame Political Science professor David Campbell (here), he argues that young people today are increasingly alienated by politics in the church, on both the right and the left. (Of course Campbell would say that. He is a political scientist.) Fair or not, plenty of folks have left or never joined a movement that spends more time talking about policy advancement than personal spiritual renewal. As far as the rise of atheists and agnostics, the growing New Atheism movement continues to gain adherents as it challenges traditional Christian understandings of science, evolution and sexuality. The numbers would success they’re winning some converts, there. Or Christians are losing them.
What’s most interesting about the Why question, though, is why Catholics and Mainline Protestants have declined so sharply but Protestant Evangelicals have maintained relative stability? (Disclosure: I’m one of those.) Campbell’s explanation is that Protestant Evangelicalism has a greater hold on its members because it comes attached with a stronger sub-culture than Mainline Protestants do. Mainline Protestants don’t make awesome movies (God’s Not Dead!) or promote super rock concerts (Toby Mac!) or elect fun politicians (Ted Cruz!) with the same energy as Evangelicals do. (Evangelicals already have a couple candidates running for President. The Mainlines might, but you’d never know it.) Hence, Evangelicals tend to remain a bit more rooted into their part of the movement, given that it reaches further into their own lives. Additionally, Protestant Evangelicals are generally more outwardly-focused than, say, American Catholics. Indeed, one of the standards by which Pew identified Protestant Evangelicals is by whether or not “sharing the faith with others” was important to the responder. No offense to my Catholic and Mainline friends (Hi Tony! Hi Samantha!), but they would probably admit that Evangelicals tend to take that responsibility a bit more seriously. Every religion loses adherents, but so far, Protestant Evangelicals tend to do the best job replacing the lost.
That’s all speculation about the Why, but it’s probably not far off. Regardless, there’s Good and Bad news in this data. Here ‘tis, as I see it.
The Bad News
The bad news about this information is simple: there are fewer Christians in America. By any measurement, I’m going to call that a loss. I know that people who weren’t Christian “enough” to last seven years probably weren’t very Christian—I’ll talk about that below—but it’s still a loss. It’s evidence that Christian movements of all stripes and colors have not quite figured out how to build their movements to be more attractive and compelling than other competing belief systems in the religious marketplace. Surely this is because many Christians neither take their faith as seriously as they could/should, nor their calling to reach out to the lost as God reached out to them. Regardless, for those of us who believe crazy stuff like the more Christians there are, the more people will be in heaven, it’s sad to learn that we’ve lost a few million people here or there. Those are people we’ll never know in eternity.
Aside from the soul-tragedy that is, this statistical loss will also make life harder for the rest of us Jesus-folks. Minorities are easier to persecute than majorities. As the number of Christians has declined, so have unfriendly political attitudes and social pressures which have only fueled the downward trend. Yes, Christians still make up a sizable majority in the country. While I’m not often given to alarmism (except when Adam Wainwright tears his Achilles), these numbers are not moving in the right direction, and the increasingly common demonization of Christians and their beliefs is a sad result of this bad news.
The Good News
But there is good news, here. Even the Pew data shows some interesting developments. First of all, all branches of Christianity are diversifying. All three branches of the Christian faith surveyed—Catholicism, Mainline Protestantism and Evangelical Protestantism—show marked increases in racial and ethnic diversity, especially from the Hispanic quarter. Catholics increased from 35% to 41%, Evangelical Protestants from 19% to 24%, and Mainline Protestants from 9% to 14% in racial/ethnic diversity. This is good, for those of us who believe additional crazy stuff like God loving all types of people. Additionally, while Christianity has generally declined across the board, not all segments of Christianity have. For example, my segment—non-denominational Protestantism—hasn’t. Non-denominational Evangelical Protestantism has grown from 4.5% to 6.2% of the population. I personally call that good news because I like non-denominational Protestantism. It's why I am one. It’s got its down-sides—don’t get me started—but I think it currently and generally represents a more authentic version of Biblical Christianity. Due respect to my Catholic and Mainline friends, but good news, I say.
And even within the “bad news” part of these numbers, the loss of 5 million Christians from the fold, while tragic, might not be the loss for them or us that we think. As far as the Church is concerned, big attendance rolls are nothing to write home about. Scripture repeatedly emphasizes the winnowing of God’s people. Gideon had too many people for the battle, so God whittled it down to a smaller number that would better demonstrate his power, not theirs (Judges 7). Once Jesus could tell he had too many followers who clearly didn’t understand his radical demands, so he turned around and gave his toughest teaching yet, thinning out the crowd. (John 6 – something about eating his body and blood. Nothing like required cannibalism to scare away the half-hearted.)
Sure, fewer Christians on earth means fewer Christians in heaven, but God cares more for the purity of his Church than he does its size. And as the Church grows, purity oftentimes gets compromised by mass appeal. (Every pastor of a mega-seeker-church knows this challenge.) In fact, not only might it be better for the Church to contract a bit, it’s probably also better for Christians-in-name-only who are lying to themselves about their religious affections. I know a lot of people who should probably be more honest with themselves about how not Christian they are. As a pastor, I spend a lot of time trying to un-convert people from their cultural-bound understanding of Christianity. They’re "Christian" not because they love Jesus, or are filled with the Holy Spirit, or are living in gratitude to Jesus for his payment of their sin. They’re "Christian" because they were raised that way, or because everybody else is, or because they had to sign up in order to get married in that beautiful church. But they’re not really Christian. I consider it a good thing when somebody gets that, because it usually involves an honest assessment of how they’re living their lives and what they really believe. Will they make it “back” to Jesus? Maybe. Maybe not. I pray they do and work hard for that. It's why I do what I do. But at least they now know where they stand with respect to him.
Having said all that, I think we need to be careful about making too much of these types of surveys, anyway. Ever since Jesus walked the earth, the number of Christians—inasmuch as we could measure these things—has waxed and waned. Those results have never deterred the Spirit from drawing more and more people to the God of Grace, or his people from traveling the globe with the message of his resurrection. Besides which, the only real survey that will matter is the one at the end of history when Jesus separates the wheat from the tares, the sheep from the goats, the Cards fans from the Cub fans. (To be clear, Cards fans go up, Cubs fans go...well, you know.) As smart as the good people at Pew are in their survey-writing, it’s going to be God who finds out what people really think and really believe. It’s going to be Him who finds out whom we really worship according to the evidence of our hearts and lives. It’s going to be Him who takes the survey for us, because it's his opinion that counts. It’s going to be Him who counts us as part of that great crowd of people from every tribe and tongue, worshipping the risen Savior at the end of time.
I can only hope and pray that he counts me among them.
What do you think? Good news? Bad new? No news? Comment below.