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.)
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.