Some takeaways —
* Cultural Christianity is dying. Only about to 20 to 25% of Americans are committed Protestant Christians in the sense of going to church on Sunday and actually allowing Christianity to shape how they live. The rest are increasingly no longer pretending.
As Ed Stetzer wrote in a Christianity Today article,
So, there has not been a huge drop in Protestant church attendance. Over the past 40 years, according to the GSS, the share of Americans who regularly attends a Protestant church has only declined from 23% to 20%.
This would reflect in increase in actual membership/attendance as the US population has grown much more than the percentage decline (48% population growth much more than offsets a 3% decline in attendance as a percentage of population). Perhaps this would be more. In 1975, the US population was 219,439,031. 23% of these people attended church regularly, that is, 50,470,977 people. In 2015, the US population is about 325,127,634, and 65,025,527 are regular church attenders, representing numerical growth of 14,554,550 in church attendance. This is why you see so many church buildings built in the last 40 years.
The 25% figure is actually fairly stable within Protestantism. The shift is from Mainline Christianity toward evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity within that 25%. But the 25% remains stable despite the rapidly growing US population.
Yet, the kind of Christians going to church has changed, particularly among Protestants. It’s moved from mainline, to evangelical. In 1972, 9% of the American population was regular church-attending mainline Protestant and 8% was evangelical, according to GSS. By 2014, the roles had reversed: church-attending mainline Protestants made up 4% of the population, while evangelicals rose to 13%.
* The evangelical numbers peaked around 1992 — and then suffered a decline. According to sociologist Bradley Wright in Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media (a must read), this was — no coincidence — the time of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition. When many evangelical churches decided to become a special interest group within the Republican Party, many members left — either because their politics were less rightwing or because they opposed the use of the Lord’s church to put politicians into power.
* We also see another decline beginning about three years ago — which ties closely to the time when the nation began to accept gay marriage. I believe that the attitude of the church toward the gay community will be increasingly important in how it’s perceived by potential converts.
Tim Keller puts it this way:
[T]he number of the devout people in the country is increasing, as well as the number of secular people. The big change is the erosion is in the middle. The devout numbers have not actually gone down that much. It depends on how you read them. But basically, they are not in freefall by any means.
What I think is fair . . . that you don’t so much see secularization as polarization, and what is really disappearing is the middle.
We no longer live in a Christian nation — if we ever did. Rather, we live in a secular nation that no longer sees any reason to pin a Christian label on its secular values.
But the US has a large and growing number of Christians who are largely evangelical and who have a distaste for denominationalism. According to Wright, the data shows that American Christians increasingly prefer large, non-denominational churches — not churches that claim not to be a denomination, but churches that actually act non-denominationally, wear no denominational-sounding name, and teach a committed, Spirit-filled Christianity — free of secular politics and free of hatred toward homosexuals.
And that tells you why both the Churches of Christ and Southern Baptists are in decline. Both cling to a denominational identity and both take great pride in their denominational identities. Ironic, isn’t it, that at the very time the nation is looking for non-denominational Christianity, so many heirs of the Restoration Movement insist on acting just like a denomination.
Moreover, both denominations have a history of being highly rationalistic, that is, de-emphasizing teaching on the Holy Spirit’s current activity in the church and the individual Christian.
And both have backwards-looking cultures — that is, members who wish things would go back to the 1950s when members wore coats and ties to church and worship music hadn’t changed since the 19th Century, preferring a 20th Century identity to evangelistic effectiveness.
(The Baptists who get upset when they lose their pipe organs don’t realize that, in the 19th Century, Baptists largely opposed pipe organs.)
The Baptists were much more involved in secular politics in the 1990s, and they paid a price in membership and image. The Churches of Christ have been blessed with a heritage of staying out of secular politics — which has served us well — but there are people pushing hard to turn us into a wing of the Republican Party. They are pursuing a secular agenda in the name of Christ.
Neither denomination has much of a history of compassion toward the gay community — although there are individual congregations that stand out in their willingness to minister among homosexuals despite their belief that homosexual conduct in sinful.
In my view, the biggest challenges for Churches of Christ over the next decade or so will be along these lines:
* Do we continue to wear the denominational name? Many of our largest congregations are already re-branding themselves as non-denominational. The question of instrumental music is really secondary to the question of identity. Do we think of ourselves as the only denomination going to heaven? Is our identity tied up in our denominational distinctives? Or is enough to be followers of Jesus? Or must we be followers of Jesus who wear a certain name and worship a certain way?
Many of our members struggle with giving up a cappella music and the name, not because they believe the Bible requires either, but because it’s who they are. It’s part of their identity — their self-image. To give up either would be to become someone else — quite literally. And I sympathize. I do. I’ve struggled with the same feelings myself. But that very real feeling is killing congregations across the country. Thousands have already closed their doors.
As I’ve written over at Wineskins, I believe our historic emphasis on baptism and the Lord’s Supper — the sacraments — is healthy and needs to be preserved. I’d far rather be known as a people committed to the sacraments than to a denominational identity — even though our commitment to the sacraments has roots in our denominational history. We can preserve the best of who we are without wearing a sectarian name.
Indeed, this is something we have to contribute to the church-universal — a renewed emphasis on the Lord’s Supper and baptism — not just getting the theology better but in letting the sacraments become vital elements of our spiritual formation — helping to shape each of us and the church into the image of Jesus. That really would be First Century Christianity.
* Do we continue to resist the temptation to keep politics out of the pulpit? It’s not just a growth strategy question but a question of whether the Kingdom should become one with the principalities and powers. In other words, we have to learn to see earthly powers as earthly powers rather than fooling ourselves into believing that salvation will be found in electing the right president.
* How do we address homosexuality? Again, we err when we think of gay issues in political terms rather than Kingdom terms. It’s not about the law or the ballot box but our hearts and attitudes toward gay people. And we just so insist on treating this as a political issue as though the United States Supreme Court could solve a spiritual problem. We need a major paradigm shift in how we think about the question. We need to get our direction from the scriptures, not the politicians and special interest groups.
Now, just as soon as I say that, readers will assume that I therefore take the Democratic Party position — which is secular thinking pure and simple. When we think Republican vs. Democrat, we’re thinking in non-biblical, non-spiritual terms. It takes some practice, but the question — as always — is: What does the Bible say? I don’t need to listen to Hillary or Rush to find out what the Bible says. So why allow myself to be influenced by either Hillary or Rush?
The Bible is quite clear on the sinfulness of homosexual conduct. But it’s also quite clear about our attitudes toward those outside the church:
(1Co 5:12 ESV) 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?
When was the last time you heard this verse preached from a Church of Christ pulpit?
Now this passage presents its own challenges, and it hardly makes how we deal with the homosexual question easy, but it’s a pretty good place from which to start. We could start with no longer judging those outside the Kingdom. It’s forbidden.
Our mission is not to label and judge the lost but to seek and save the lost. And if we could just get that right, God would surely bring growth as we plant and water.