Pew Study Prompts Varying Explanations for Decline

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 9.54.58 AMBy now, many people have seen the articles about the “collapse” of Christianity in the U.S. A recent study by the Pew Research Center  found that Christianity had decreased from 78.4 percent of the population in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics fared the worst, with declines of more than three percentage points each. Evangelical Protestants suffered a lesser decline of nearly one percentage point.

Non-Christian faiths grew by 1.2 percentage points to encompass nearly six percent of the population. But the big news was the jump in “unaffiliated” persons from 16.1 to 22.8 percent of the population, a growth of 6.7 percentage points. Atheists and agnostics grew from 4.0 percent to 7.1 percent of the population.

As an aside, United Methodists went from 5.1 percent in 2007 to 3.6 percent in 2014.

There is of course a lot of hand wringing about these survey results. Many in the liberal media are predicting the demise of Christianity! (Of course, we are nowhere near that point.) Conservatives blame liberal theology. Liberals counter that some conservative groups are shrinking just as badly.

What is the real story?

1)     Part of the issue with how this survey is compiled is that it is based on self-reporting by the survey participants. This leads to inaccuracies in the results. For example, as I noted above, United Methodists supposedly make up 3.6 percent of the population. Southern Baptists, according to the survey, make up 5.3 percent of the population. Yet the SBC has 16 million members, more than twice the UM Church’s 7.3 million. (Based on the percentages, United Methodism ought to have 11.5 million members.) The results don’t add up. So people’s perception of their religious affiliation is different from the official membership numbers.

2)     Stemming from this point, it has become less necessary to identify oneself as a Christian in order to fit into our society. It used to be fashionable to be a Christian. No longer. So some of the increase in “unaffiliated” could be people who were never Christians in the first place, yet used to identify themselves as Christians for social reasons and do not feel the need to do so any more. Ed Stetzer, the research guru of the Southern Baptist Convention, makes this point in his USA Today article []. He points out that most of the decline in Christianity is coming from the Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, who harbor more “nominal” Christians (in name only) due to their lower expectations of church members.

3)     Religion commentator Jonathan Merritt attributes part of the greater decline among Mainline Protestants to a lower birthrate than among evangelicals. However, this does not explain the equal decline of Roman Catholics, who encourage larger families.

4)     Dr. Gregory Popcak, a Catholic psychologist and radio host, points out that divorce and broken families play a big role in younger generations failing to find faith. Just on a practical level, when children in a divorced family alternate weekends between different homes, they also alternate between different churches (or a church and no church), making it much more difficult for them to bond with or even understand a particular faith. The psychological trauma of divorce causes children to distrust authority figures and caregivers. This translates into mistrust of the church and even of God. Parents who are going through a divorce are often not in the best position to pass along their Christian faith and values (if they have them), and may indeed even be questioning their own faith at that point in their lives. It is no wonder that the youngest generation (Millennials) is feeling the brunt of growing up in an increasingly divorce-laden world.

Religion Insights reports on a study of teens and young adults by Christian Smith. “Parents, Smith finds, are the single most important predictor of a young adult’s attitude toward religion. Young adults raised in a religious home where faith is taken seriously and practiced regularly will continue those traditions. Parents with halfhearted attempts at inculcating faith wind up with children who are less religiously committed as adults. Short of revamping congregations to make them friendlier to young people of this age group, Smith concludes church leaders ought to focus instead on children and especially on parents. ‘The best thing they can do is help parents be faith-formers,’ said Smith. ‘However it works to get parents committed and involved, that’s what matters.’”

Ed Stetzer in the article linked above points out that American Christianity is becoming increasingly evangelical. Fully 55 percent of all U.S. Christians identify with an evangelical denomination. And this does not include those in Mainline and other churches who are not counted as evangelicals, but hold evangelical beliefs and values. As Stetzer points out, evangelicals are maintaining their share of the population and growing in absolute numbers. They attend church more frequently than non-evangelicals and often exhibit greater adherence to biblical values.

Evangelical beliefs and values address causes two and four above. Evangelicals in general, and evangelical denominations in particular, often have higher expectations and commitment levels. This ought to encourage United Methodists to raise the bar for church membership and encourage high commitment to the faith, rather than focusing solely on who is “included” or welcomed into the body. And evangelicals tend to divorce at lower rates. Support for marriages and families in church, including parenting instruction as well as teaching the Christian value of marriage, can help build stronger congregations, as well.

While the sky may not be falling, there is no room for complacency in the face of these statistics. There are now at least 56 million Americans who claim no Christian affiliation. Many of them are still open to the Gospel. It is past time for the church to focus on preaching the Good News and growing disciples of Jesus Christ.


6 thoughts on “Pew Study Prompts Varying Explanations for Decline

  1. The final straw for me was when I realized the UMC was AGAINST Israel. I felt I had to FLEE! I am now amongst the counted Southern Baptist church that supports Israel (and the God of Israel). However, I will always keep in mind the final apologetic of not promoting division among my Christian brothers & sisters.

  2. Your thoughts in the last paragraph theoretically make a lot of sense; however, even though the Florida Methodist church I attend is evangelical and true to Biblical principles, our district superintendent is openly advocates gay marriages/ordinations and the Bishop and his senior staff are “progressives.” While I evangelize in certain ways, I certainly would not invite somebody to join our church because of the district./conference hierarchy who are not only flawed in their doctrine, but an embarrassment to the principles of evangelical Christianity. .

    1. I agree with you what you are seeing Bruce.

      According to the Scriptures our loyalty come down to one thing! Who do we love more?

      John 21:15-25

      After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?

      “Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”

      “Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.

      Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

      “Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”

      “Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.

      A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

      Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

      Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.

      “I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.”

      Peter turned around and saw behind them the disciple Jesus loved—the one who had leaned over to Jesus during supper and asked, “Lord, who will betray you?” Peter asked Jesus, “What about him, Lord?”

      Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” So the rumor spread among the community of believers[c] that this disciple wouldn’t die. But that isn’t what Jesus said at all. He only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”

      This disciple is the one who testifies to these events and has recorded them here. And we know that his account of these things is accurate.

      Jesus also did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.

      As a 2012 GC delegate I witnessed first hand the great ungodliness among Bishops on down to the local leadership within the districts.

      I encourage you to read about some of that experience:

      For my husband and I it came down to the question ” Who do we love more?” Christ Jesus and His Word or a church building…seeing the truth of what has really been going on in UMC for 40 years… ask the question of me. “Who do you love more?”

      This generation and my own children are watching to see what will be my answer to that question.

      Read Matthew 18:1-6 and ponder that a few minutes…. what have we said to the children by playing along for 40 yrs and still staying for the property that may be gained or the the pension plan and insurance…. CHOICES are being made!


    2. I have had this same reaction to our church in Texas. Recently I had someone looking for a church home, and I had to tell them not to join our congregation because of the attitudes of the clergy toward marriage, and their lack of commitment to upholding the Bible as God’s word to guide a Christian life.

  3. “Support for marriages and families in church, including parenting instruction as well as teaching the Christian value of marriage, can help build stronger congregations, as well.” Except, you fail to point out, that singles are the new majority adult population, and since most singles are marginalized in most churches, I would expect a high percentage of “unaffiliated” to be single. Focusing more on marriage and family won’t necessarily attract the unaffiliated back into the fold. How do churches address this?

    1. Thank you, Vicki. You raise a good point. Obviously in my blog post I wasn’t able to cover all the bases. Building support in churches for single persons is also an important ministry. The Pew research identified that 48% of the “unaffiliated” persons are married or living with a partner, compared to 61% of Mainline Protestants. So significantly more of the “unaffiliated” are single. The traditional “singles ministry” concept is less effective today. It is better to find ways to create intergenerational groups for ministry that include both singles and married couples. There also needs to be far more encouragement and support for “celibacy in singleness.”

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