18 Church Trends (and More!): Trend 1

Technically, as a blogger, I’m supposed to post on church trends the last week of the year. But I was also supposed to run a series on Advent right after Thanksgiving. And an article defending evergreen wreaths on church doors. But I just couldn’t work up the motivation. I mean, N. T Wright had just released this new book on ROMANS! How could I resist?

But I do try to keep up with the evangelical blogosphere, and some helpful articles appeared on church trends — which are much more interesting to me than the endless stream of ruminations on Advent. (Like I need to add candle-lighting ceremonies to my already-overwhelming December to do list. Or maybe I’m just too low church to get it.)

Trend 1: Study Shows Fewer Americans Are Practicing Organized Religion.

This is from The New York Post.

A staggering 21 percent of those surveyed said they don’t practice a “formal religion” — up from the 15 percent who said that in 2008, according to Gallup.

“Religion is losing influence in society,” according to Gallup, which did not offer a reason for the decline. “This may be a short-term phenomenon or an indication of a more lasting pattern.”

Overall, 74 percent of Americans identified as Christian and 2.1 percent said they were Jewish; 1.8 percent said they were Mormon and .8 identified as Muslim, according to the pollsters.

Everyone else either claimed to be “none/ atheist / agnostic” or gave no response at all, researchers said.

Similar reports came out a few months ago, and Ed Stetzer, a church growth consultant to the Southern Baptist Churches, has a different interpretation (part 1 of his series).

Pew’s findings have led some to forecast the complete collapse of Christianity in the United States. The data, however, implies a more complex reality. Frankly, there is no credible research showing that Christianity is dying in America despite the flashy headlines we often see.

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.

Stetzer knows his numbers, and he is a far more reliable interpreter of the data than the secular press — or the Christian press. He continues (part 3 of his series),

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.

The Nones, as we discussed earlier, are on the rise. 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 differing rates.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe it’s a sign that we are clarifying what it means to be Christian in America. Most of us realize that 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 because they aren’t Jewish, or Hindu, or Muslim, or Buddhist. But the Church defines “Christian” differently than culture at large, and the distinction is an important one to make.

In short, the culture no longer requires non-Christians to pretend that they follow Jesus. So the percentage of truly committed (or born again) Christians is about constant, whereas the total claiming to be “Christian” in a cultural but not a cruciform sense is in rapid decline. It’s Romans 1 happening — those who refuse to worship the One True God are increasingly not acting like Christians. They are becoming more and more true to what they worship.

Now, the important question is how you and your congregation intend to respond to this change. You could surrender your essential Christian beliefs, deny the necessity of faith in Jesus, relativize every inconvenient commandment, and become a secular organization wrapped in vestments — and some have tried — or you can push that much harder toward being a true outpost of the Kingdom in an increasingly foreign land.

Recommended study material:

Resident Aliens: Life in the Colony, by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (absolutely essential reading)

Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church, by Scot McKnight

Either would be an excellent resource for a Bible class or group study.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to 18 Church Trends (and More!): Trend 1

  1. Gary says:

    Rather than embracing an identity as Kingdom outposts in a foreign land, a la Hauerwas and Willimon, white American Evangelicalism has chosen more than any other identifiable group in our country to not only embrace but to attempt to take ownership of this world as we find it in America in 2017. 81% of white Evangelicals are on record as having voted for our President-Elect, a significantly higher percentage than even white males without college degrees. That’s a gutsy gamble. White Evangelicalism has more at stake in the success or failure of the new administration than any other group in America. Only time will tell whether this gamble pays off or not. But the current situation of American Evangelicalism is the opposite of what Hauerwas and Willimon advocated.

  2. Monty says:

    If God had given the nation of Israel the opportunity to have voted against an agenda that was perceived by roughly half of all Israelites that was taking the nation in the wrong direction, I think they would have cast their vote. It’s not that big a deal. Christians voted. We’ve been doing that for 240 years now. If Christians in the 1700’s had just removed themselves from all things political we’d still be under British rule.

  3. Dustin says:

    Jay,

    Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher and Catholic, has written the tome on this trend in “A Secular Age.” It would be great to see a series on parts of this book as it is much too long for a complete write up. James K.A. Smith has a reading/companion guide to the book in “How Not to Be Secular.”

  4. Gary says:

    Monty, you do realize that rebellion against the government is a direct violation of Romans 13 don’t you? The American Revolution cannot be justified biblically. It is a very big deal when Christians collectively become responsible for choosing who becomes the most powerful person in the world. Maybe it will turn out for the best. I hope so. But either way it is an extremely big deal. Either way it is the opposite of what Hauerwas and Willimon advocated in their groundbreaking book Resident Aliens.

  5. Dale says:

    I fear that all the conservative evangelical church has done in the last election is throw away any healing and influence it may have in future generations for a roll of the dice during the next four years.

  6. Dustin says:

    Dale,
    I’ve heard European Christian commenters say that the political involvement of the church in Europe caused them to lose the past few generations. I would say that we will see similar results.

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dale,

    I don’t disagree. In fact, I think it’s worse. There were several candidates with genuine evangelical pedigrees. They failed to win primaries and hence the nomination. The voters rejected the evangelical candidates because (in my view) they were so tied to the existing power structure and system. Rather than offering an alternative perspective, they promised that same old same old. That is, the public’s perception of evangelical politics is that it’s no different from old school failed politics.

    Hence, Trump wins, not because of his family values, but because he is plainly willing to stand outside of conventional thought. And then just as soon as the election is over, the House Republicans attempted to neuter their committee on ethical standards — and Trump (of all people) has to chastise them for the effort. http://www.politico.com/story/2017/01/republicans-house-ethics-backlash-233152. And where are the evangelical leaders on House ethics? Stone silence.

  8. Joe B says:

    Organized Christianity as we know it may very well be reduced to a mere existence (7%) as it has in Europe and other older developed regions of the world but what it will be replaced with is a Christianity that is more incarnational, transformative, redempive and effective. The self appointed theological police are holding on for dear life, refusing to fundamentally re-think their theology. This will pass. Only then can Christianity be re-birthed in the context of post-modern developed society. The organic Christian movement in Holland’s post modern culture is almost unrecognizable in terms of who and what we think of Church and organized Christianity but then you see random folks getting together to pray in coffee shops on their break and random folks meeting together to feed and visit people at the hospital. Then you ask them what church they go to and you just get a dumb look and then they ask you if you would like to join them. Hmmmmmm? America get ready it has already started.

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