Christianity Isn’t Dying
October 19, 2012 16 Comments
Those with only a loose religious affiliation are finally admitting they don’t really have one at all.
- Many in the USA who identify as Christian do so only superficially.
- The recent growth in “nones,” comes primarily from cultural and churchgoing Christians shifting.
- The future of Christianity in America is not extinction but clarification.
6:34PM EDT October 18. 2012 – You’ve heard it suggested that the United States is simply Europe on a 50-year delay. Most churches will be museums before your grandchildren reach adulthood.
Though new numbers from Pew Research released this month point to a decline in American Protestants, no serious scholar believes that Christianity in America is on a trajectory of extinction. And, as a researcher and practicing evangelical Christian, I say to those who’ve read recent reports and come to that conclusion, “Not so fast.”
You see, many in the USA who identify as Christian do so only superficially. These “cultural Christians” use the term “Christian” but do not practice the faith.
Now it seems that many of them are even giving up the label, and those cultural Christians are becoming “nones” (people with no religious label).
In our research, we see three broad ways people identify as Christian.
“Cultural Christians” mark “Christian” on a survey rather than another world religion because they know they are not Hindu, Jewish, etc., or because their family always has. “Churchgoing Christians” identify as such because they occasionally attend worship services.
On the other hand, “conversion Christians” claim to have had a faith experience in which they were transformed, resulting in a deeply held belief.
The recent growth in “nones,” I believe, comes primarily from cultural and churchgoing Christians shifting to the category no longer using a religious identification. This shift should cause us to consider three ramifications:
First, Christians continue to lose what some have called a home-field advantage. Christianity is no longer the first choice of many seeking spiritual meaning, and identifying as Christian is not necessary to be an accepted part of society.
Second, the squishy middle is collapsing. It makes less sense to be a cultural Christian today. Better to be spiritual than religious, unless your religion matters to you, as it does to devout Roman Catholics, Protestants and many others.
Third, Christianity is not collapsing, but it is being clarified.
If you cut through the recent hype, and look to studies such as the General Social Survey, you’ll find that the United States is filled with vibrant believers.
The survey shows that the evangelical movement has remained generally steady from 1972 to 2010 (and, contrary to what you might have heard, the data include young adults), that church attendance has declined among mainline Protestants, and that the “nones” have increased.
But no collapse.
Other examples of resiliency abound.
Each year, Gallup asks Americans whether they consider themselves a born-again or evangelical Christian. Since 1992, the percentage has fluctuated from a low of 36% in 1992 to a high of 47% in 1998.
The 2011 yearly aggregate is 42%, very similar to the percentages over the past eight years.
Christianity has hardly been replaced by the “nones.”
Spritual, not religious
So, if not extinction, what does the future look like? I don’t think it looks like Europe, shaped by historic religious wars and legally mandated religion. Instead, if trends continue, I believe that the future will look more like the present-day Pacific Northwest. There, we find a majority of the population is spiritual but not religious, yet vibrant churches and devout Christians abound.
For example, in the Foursquare Church (a mid-size Pentecostal denomination), the Northwest District oversees 150 churches. Fifteen years ago, 66 of those churches did not exist. Those 66 churches alone report 40,000 new believers. Similar examples of such vibrant growth, there and elsewhere, demonstrate the point.
The future of Christianity in America is not extinction but clarification that a devout faith is what will last. Christianity in America isn’t dying, cultural Christianity is.