The Church is Dying!!!
Over the last few days my Facebook feed has been filled with a pair of resurfacing doomsday articles. The first is titled A Huge Asteroid to Pass Close to Earth on Thursday. I haven’t read it, but my guess it is a about a rather large asteroid which will pass the Earth on May 14th. Just a guess. The other article is titled, America’s Changing Religious Landscape. While the title isn’t as clear as the previous title, the central idea is that the church is dying. Specifically the church in America is quickly bleeding out, and they give statistics to convince you.
If you’re a Christian, an initial look at the numbers should have you terrified. Between 2007 and 2014 the percentage of Americas who identified with Christianity dropped from 78.4% to 70.6%. That truly is a STAGGERINGLY sudden drop in people identifying with Christianity.
Naturally lots of people have opinions:
- America is Getting Less Christian and Less Religious, Study Shows – Huffington Post
- Maybe Christianity in America is Dying Because It’s Boring Everyone to Death – Matt Walsh
As long as we’re sharing opinions, I have a few of my own:
- An asteroid didn’t blow up the Earth May 14th.
- The church in America isn’t dying.
- Cultural Christianity in America is dying.
What is the Church in America?
I’m constantly confused by most of these doomsday articles. They lump enormous numbers of people into simplified categories and make generalizations about them. When they talk about the church in America, I don’t know what we’re talking about. What church is dying?
Simply put, there is no church of America.
There are churches in America. There are Christians in America. The Church, as in body of all believers, is in America. But there’s no one thing you can really talk about which qualifies as the church in America.
When you talk about something in such broad terms you get blatant contradictions.
- The church in America is way too old fashioned.
- The church in America is trying way too hard to be relevant.
- The church in America focuses too much on ivory tower theology and liturgy.
- The church in America has watered down the message to accommodate lazy people.
- The church in America is filled with homophobes.
- The church in America is soft on truth and permissive towards gay marriage.
The reality is that the church in America is many things. It’s a very broad category.
Polling Statistics Vs. Church Attendance Vs. Christ Followers
Can we just accept something really obvious?
Statistical data about how many people identify as Christian in America has nothing to do with either The Church or Christianity!
Stop and consider this chart showing the number of people who identify as Christian throughout the decades.
Giving the chart a quick look, people identifying as Christian clearly has a significant decline. While there has been ups and downs, it’s dropped by about 20% (if you include the current study).
I know we like to look back on the past with rosy colored glasses, but the past wasn’t always so great.
Certainly, Christianity had a greater influence on popular culture in past decades.
Certainly, we have moved into a post-Christian culture.
Certainly, we have become more secular.
As a case in point, in 1956 Christianity had so many sway in popular culture that the government added the phrase, “In God We Trust,” onto our money. But is that really a sign of healthy Christianity?
In the 1960’s over 90% of Americans called themselves Christians but…
- The 60’s brought us the sexual revolution, drug revolution, and civil unrest.
- The 70’s brought us Roe vs. Wade when nearly 90% identified as Christians.
- The 80’s brought us the “Me decade” while 85% of people identified as Christians.
Keep in mind, each of these decades came from the generation with around 95% of people identified as Christian.
The generation with near universal acceptance of Christianity produced the generation of drugs, sex, open selfishness, abortion, and the secularization of our nation.
It appears there’s more to healthy Christianity than simply identifying as a Christian.
It gets even more interesting when you consider church membership. While people identifying as Christian has dropped 20%, church membership has only dropped by 10%. Just based on that, it’s obvious that the drop for those somewhat affiliated with a church is significantly less than the drop for those without.
The Church is Dying…still?
Books or articles on the death of the church are nothing new. They’ve been around for decades. Author George Barna spent virtually his entire career studying and writing about the eminent demise of the institutional church in America.
Just one problem…the church is still here. Many sections of Christianity in America are actually growing.
The problem with most of these studies, polls, and predictions is that they fail to consider the incredible diversity amongst denominations. When you look at the statistics for specific denominations a different narrative emerges.
The chart above from the book, Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, shows the rise and drop in attendance of young adults for various denominations over the last 40 years. When you look at the chart, something becomes very obvious, not all denominations are the same.
- Roman Catholics have had a slight drop.
- Black Protestant had a spike in the 80’s, but they’re currently slightly down.
- Evangelicals spiked in the 80’s and 90’s, but they’ve still had a small rise over the last 40 years.
- Mainline denominations dropped drastically and consistently for the last 40 years.
The study of the last 7 years gives fairly similar information.
Over the last seven years mainline denominations have declined by 4%, Catholic church has dropped by 3%, and Evangelicals have dropped by less than 1%.
All of the studies indicate that Evangelical churches are doing ok, and Mainline denominations are in SHARP decline.
Essentially Evangelical churches are on the theological right, and Mainline churches are on the theological left.
In other words:
- Churches who hold to traditional views of Christianity and theology are doing just fine. Christians that view the Bible as authoritative are staying with the church far more.
- Churches with a progressive view of Christianity and theology are struggling. Christians who don’t view the Bible as the infallible, authoritative Word of God tend to be more likely to leave the faith.
Traditional Christianity is staying strong (whether with hymnals and pews or a rock band and light show).
Progressive Christianity is quickly in decline.
What Does It Mean? What Church is Dying?
Over the last 50 years, the United States has quickly become highly secular. Whereas in the 1950’s it was socially unacceptable to be an atheist or non-Christian, today it’s perfectly socially acceptable.
What this means is that 50 years ago there were millions upon millions of people claiming to be Christians and attending church only because it was expected of them. But over the decades that expectation has declined and acceptance of atheism and agnosticism has grown. Likewise, the information age has made us far more comfortable with other religions.
The end result is that we’re seeing a continuing and growing trend of people who identified with Christianity and a denomination out of cultural pressure leaving the church. This was/is particular common in Mainline denominations and Catholicism. Therefore, you see the sharpest drops in those denominations.
While on first glance these studies make it look like Christianity is on the brink of extinction in America, the reality is that we’re seeing a more realistic view of what has always been true.
Jesus’ own words speak to the church in America.
13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
God’s Church will prevail!