Just how healthy is the Christian Church in America today? Is it strong and vibrant, well on its way to becoming a 'glorious church, without spot or wrinkle'? Or this there more reason to believe that Christianity is rapidly regressing spiritually and that Americans are increasingly turning their backs on God?
In a recent series of articles for Christianity Today, former LifeWay Research head Ed Stetzer confirms the dire news: Christianity is on the decline, Americans have given up on God, and the "Nones"--those who have no religious ties--are on the rise.
These conclusions have been drawn from recent surveys and other polls. As Stetzer emphasizes, the "facts are our friends" and the numbers don't lie. Research data instead gives us a realistic picture of our health--rather than the overly optimistic view we'd prefer.
Stetzer notes some important facts that the numbers tell us about the Church in America:
- Overall, the Church's influence on Americans is beginning to fade and a growing number of Americans have given up on God--becoming "Nones," a term popularized by Pew Research.
- Pew's studies showed that by 2015, that number had grown to 23%, almost one in four Americans. Gallup, another well-respected national firm had that number at 16% by 2014.
- In 2007, Pew found that about 8 in 10 Americans identified as Christians. That number dropped to 7 in 10 in 2014--a statistically significant change in a relatively short time.
- Pew also found that less than half of Americans (46.5%) now identify as Protestants for the first time in American history.
Stetzer noted that the Pew data demonstrates a consistent and noteworthy increase among Americans who are disconnected from faith. If this trend continues, this portion of society will become increasingly prominent and perhaps even become a majority.
Mark Chaves of Duke University described the rate of Christian decline as slow but "unmistakable'. Is Christianity in the United States, therefore, hopelessly on its way to extinction in the not-too-distant future?
The answers differ depending on who gets asked and the specific ways that each respected poll is structured and how data is collected and interpreted. Some indicators paint a much less pessimistic picture, and the most accurate view is likely to be somewhere in the middle.
New independent research on church growth, for instance, has revealed that the world's largest churches are continuing to grow. According to Veronica Neffinger in a recent ChristianToday.com article, megachurches in America and around the world are gaining more members. More than 1.6 million people reportedly attend America's megachurches each week.
Pew's findings have led some to forecast the complete collapse of Christianity in the United States. According to Stetzer, the data, however, implies a more complex reality. Instead, American religion is simultaneously growing and in decline: fewer people claim to be Christians, but churchgoers--those who regularly attend services--are holding steady in some segments, and thriving in others.
To gain further perspective, Stetzer recommends looking at Pew's data alongside data from the General Social Survey. The GSS, which began in 1972, is particularly helpful for tracking trends in religious belief and practice.
The GSS shows only a slight decline among frequent churchgoers. In all likelihood, that decline will be reversed as the data returns to the mean. This should hardly be categorized as a collapse, and in no way affirms popular doom and gloom predictions.
What's more, according to the GSS, we find a stable percentage of the Protestant population attending church regularly--no prodigious drop in Protestant church attendance. Instead, over the past 40 years, the share of Americans who regularly attends a Protestant church has only declined from 23% to 20%.
The reality is that the United States remains a remarkably devout nation. Taken as a whole, about 4 in 10 Americans claims to go to church weekly. Further, more than 138 million Americans--or 44% of the population--belong to a congregation, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives.
Still, Stetzer concludes, not all segments of the church have fared as well. Some are thriving, while others are experiencing significant change.
Mainline Protestants (those in the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA], Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.], American Baptist Churches, United Church of Christ [UCC], and The Christian Church [Disciples of Christ]) have fared poorly in recent decades.
Whereas Christianity overall is not dying in America, Mainline Protestantism is on life support. According to the GSS, 28% of Americans identified with a mainline church in 1972.
By 2014, that number had dropped to 12.2%. A recent report from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) corroborates this trend. Pew research findings also seem to support this worrying view.
Other Mainline denominations faced similar declines due to several factors, including aging membership, falling birthrates, a lack of theological clarity, and a shortage of new churches. Mainline Protestantism, as a whole , is hemorrhaging and is facing an existential crisis.
If the current trajectory continues, some mainline denominations could cease to exist in the next four to five decades.
Evangelicals have remained steady for the most part, according to the polls. The GSS found that in 1972, 17.1% of Americans self-identified as evangelical. In 2014, this percentage increased to 22.7%. Similarly, the number of Americans regularly attending church increased from 7.9% to 12.5%.
Furthermore, evangelicals attend church now more than ever. The 2014 GSS reported that in the last two years of the study, a greater percentage of evangelicals was attending church than any other time in the last four decades. 55% of evangelicals attend church nearly every week.
According to the Pew data, about half of American Christians claim to be evangelical or born again. Evangelical Protestantism constitutes the largest single religious tradition in the United States with 25% of U.S. adults currently identifying with evangelical Protestant denominations.
Evangelicals, unlike Catholics or Mainline Protestants, have also benefited marginally when people switch their religious identity. There are 1.2 adults who have converted to evangelicalism after having been raised in another faith (or no faith) for each person who has left evangelicalism for another religion (or no religion).
Still, there are challenges. Christian Smith of Notre Dame suspects that evangelicals, especially white evangelicals, may decline in the future because of internal division, an identity crisis, and lower birthrates.
In addition to vital trends associated with Protestants and evangelicals, there are three more vital trends Stetzer highlights that are necessary to make sense of America's religious landscape:
1. The rise of non-denominational churches. The growth of non-denominational churches is often overlooked in analyses of U.S. religious data. These are congregations that are not affiliated with national church organizations like the United Methodist Church or Assemblies of God.
The rapid growth of these churches demands attention. For example, the majority of the 100 largest churches in the U.S. are non-denominational. Soon, the largest evangelical 'denomination' will be non-denominational.
2. The stability of historic African-American churches. Historically, African-American churches and denominations have continued to report steady numbers overall. These include denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the National Baptist Convention, and the Church of God in Christ, which emerged during segregation.
Historic African-American churches tend to hold similar beliefs to evangelical churches, but do not prefer to use the evangelical label.
3. Erosion of the "Christian middle." We are not seeing the death of Christianity in America, but we are seeing remarkable changes. Culture is shifting and the religious landscape is evolving. But, instead of the funeral of a religion, at least in part we are witnessing the demise of casual and cultural Christianity. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Stetzer believes it's a sign that we are clarifying what it means to be Christian in America. Although about three-quarters of Americans check the "Christian" box when filling out a survey, they are not all genuine followers of Jesus. For many, the idea of being Christian and American are one-in-the-same.
Or they claim to be Christian merely because they aren't Jewish, or Hindu, or Muslim, or Buddhist. But the Bible defines "Christian" differently than does the culture at large, and the distinction is an important one to make.
What about the rising number of the "Nones"? Almost 1 in 4 Americans now claims to have no religious affiliation. That number will likely grow in the years to come. About a third of Millennial Americans, according to Pew, are now Nones. And they are disassociating with every segment of the church, although at different rates.
Stetzer believes it is helpful to distinguish those who profess Christianity into three categories: cultural, congregational, and convictional.
1. Cultural Christians. The first category is made up of people who believe themselves to be Christians simply because their culture tells them they are. They are Christian by heritage.
They may have religious roots in their family or may come from a people group tied to a certain religion, such as Southern Evangelicals or Irish Catholics. This group makes up around one-third of the 75% who self-identify as Christians--or about a quarter of all Americans.
2. Congregational Christians. The second category is similar to the first, except these individuals at least have some connection to congregational life. They have a home church they grew up in and perhaps where they were married. They might even visit occasionally.
Here again, though, we would say that these people are not practicing any sort of real, vibrant Biblical faith. They are attendees. This group makes up another one-third of the 75%--or about a quarter of all Americans.
3. Convictional Christians. The final group is made up of people who are actually living according to their faith. These are the people who would say they have met Jesus Christ, He changed their lives, and since that time their lives have been increasingly oriented around their faith in Him. Convictional Christians make up the final third of the 75%--or about a quarter of all Americans.
Interestingly, since 1972 and according to the General Social Survey, the percentage of convictional Christians in the U.S. population has remained generally stable, if we see regular church attendance as a marker of such conviction. On the other hand, mainline Protestantism has declined, whereas other areas within evangelicalism have grown slightly to offset that loss.
In conclusion, the numbers of people who are committed Christians--those who are practicing a vibrant faith--are not dying off. However, that does not mean that the Church is not being challenged. It is, and it is being more clearly defined.
People are beginning to count the cost. Indeed, American Christians won't disappear, but they will increasingly be neighbors with Americans who are more disconnected from organized religion, and from a shared religious memory.
Instead of seeing the research as bad news, Stetzer urges Americans to embrace the challenges before them and step into this new cultural reality with fresh ways to engage the Nones and others.