Is Christianity dying in America?

The landscape between church and culture is shifting dramatically in America, but the news may be better than you think.

This morning I attended a lecture by church researcher Ed Stetzer about the state of the American church. He said when people respond to surveys, they split up roughly into four quartiles:

  • 25% "Nones" -- no connection with Christianity at all
  • 25% Cultural Christians -- people who check "Christian" on a form, but the gospel of Jesus has little or no effect on their lives
  • 25% Congregational Christians -- people who have a vague, loose, or occasional connection to a local church; classic "Easter and Christmas" attenders
  • 25% Convictional Christians -- people who are serious about the gospel and the Christian life; could be either Protestant, Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox
Here's the big shift. In previous eras of American history, the two middle groups (Cultural and Congregational) basically accepted the ethical standards of the Convictional Christians. They may not have lived them out very rigorously, but they recognized that in our society it was better to gravitate toward a "Judeo-Christian morality." However, in recent decades it has become decreasingly advantageous to be associated with Christianity, so the people in the middle two groups have begun to slide toward the "Nones." The big shift in the American church, according to Stetzer, is that in the coming decades the categories of Cultural and Congregational Christians will all but disappear. American will be 3/4 secular and 1/4 committed Christian.

There are a lot of people, both Christian and non-Christian, who are predicting the end of Christianity in America. The research indicates otherwise. What's disappearing is not Christianity but rather non-committed Christianity (if there ever was such a thing). 

Stetzer referenced research that indicates the following:
  • Attendance of mainline denominations is falling like a rock. It is falling alongside decreasing numbers of "nominal" Christians (people who are Christian in name only -- that is, Cultural and Congregational Christians).
  • Numbers of evangelicals are holding, and in fact are on a slight rise.
  • Even among young adults ages 18-29, evangelical Christianity is holding steady.
In other words, rumors of Christianity's demise in America are greatly exaggerated. 

Statistics from a major study measuring changes in church affiliation since 1972.
Stetzer commented on this graphic in today's seminar.

If you ask Stetzer -- and I wholeheartedly agree -- the disappearance of "nominal" Christianity is actually a good thing. Susan and I have lived in Dallas and Los Angeles for extended periods of time. Dallas has to be the shiny buckle of the Bible belt. Churches are stuffed with nominal Christians who are there just because is the culturally expected thing to do. In Los Angeles, on the other hand, it is of no advantage to label oneself as Christian, so people generally don't go to church unless they really mean to. Guess which environment Susan and I preferred. Los Angeles by a long shot. We found Cultural and Congregational Christians in Dallas difficult to get through to, and we appreciated that church means so much more when it is actually uncool to be there, like in Los Angeles.

So cheer up, Christians. We aren't going anywhere. Actually, I think the best days of the American church are yet to come.

Comments

  1. While I think there are committed Christians in mainline denominational churches and cultural Christians in many "evangelical" churches, I have to say I think the broad outlines of what you're talking about are pretty disturbing -- after all, aren't the "Nones" and the non-committed the people evangelical churches are supposed to be reaching out to? So a shrinking pool of people who will even tolerate open discussion with committed Christians is definitely not a good thing for the church.

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  2. Hi Scott -- Thank you for writing! You make several important points. First, there definitely are committed Christians in mainline churches and nominal Christians in evangelical churches. It's good to point out that Stetzer was talking in vast generalities today.

    Second, committed Christians are indeed called to reach out to nominal Christians and "Nones." As the pool of nominal Christians shrinks and more of them become Nones, discussions about the Christian faith can still take place, but there will be need for more unpacking of basic biblical concepts like sin and forgiveness. However, I'm not convinced that Nones are any less likely to become committed Christians than nominal Christians. In many ways, I think the conversation with a None is easier because at least the None doesn't think he/she already has Christianity figured out.

    That said, I think the implication of your comments is that it won't get easier to be a Christian. We will be increasingly marginalized and misunderstood. I think you see that coming, and you're right about it.

    Finally, I think it is comforting to remember that in the end, it is the Holy Spirit who draws people to Jesus and opens their hearts. If that's true, we don't have to worry about how far they seem from being a Christian. If American society goes the way Stetzer predicts, we can expect God to do some dramatic things in his church.

    -David

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