By 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 [http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2015/05/13/nones-americans-christians-evangelicals-column/27198423/]. 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.