A Decline in U. S. Christianity?

On September 13, 2022, the Pew Research Center and the General Social Survey released some alarming statistics. 

  • In the early 1960s, approximately 90% of the U S population identified as Christian (this percentage included children). In 2020, only 64% identified as Christian.
  • The number of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated increased from 16% in 2007 to 29% in 2020. (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism accounted for approximately 6% in 2020.)
  • If the current pace of decline increases among Christians under the age of 30 (who may leave Christianity to become atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”), Christianity could become a minority religion in the U S by 2045 and by 2070 could dip to just 35% of the population. 
  • Older Americans tend to remain identified as Christian. Younger Americans are rapidly switching to “none.”

Pastors and church leaders will not be shocked by these statistics. Church membership has dwindled over the past decades, and many mainline Protestant churches have aging members. Young people, once they graduate from high school (and sometimes even earlier), abandon churches at an alarming rate. 

The reasons for the decline of Christianity are many. 

  1. In the 1950s, a congregation could have the worst pastor, most divisive membership, a terrible location, and inadequate educational programs and still survive or even grow. There was not much to do in the small towns of America on Sundays. Churches tended to be the social centers of the community. 
  2. In small-town America, it was beneficial for families to be in churches. It was good for business and the reputation of the family, and a great place to make contacts.
  3. There was still the societal expectation and pressure for people to go to church. Sunday worship was simply a habitual activity on people’s part.
  4. Today, even in small towns, there are activities to choose from. Parents have their kids involved in many activities, most of which are more exciting and attractive than what local churches can offer. Soccer or church? An action movie or church? A family outing or church? Relaxing or church? Children and, in many cases, adults see Sunday as the one day they can recreate and “remount and reload” for the new week. If churches cannot offer anything that is relevant to their lives, increasingly people would prefer to be elsewhere. 
  5. Churches need to find ways to “scratch where people itch” in their lives. Relevance is needed, but more importantly, a message and an approach to life must be offered which comforts the afflicted and challenges the comfortable in our society. For the most part, churches have failed to be relevant and to offer a deep spiritual dimension which can address the challenges of post-modern life. Too many congregations simply open their doors on Sunday morning and expect people to flock to their worship services. Instead of being a witness to the radical alternative Jesus offered in his message and ministry, churches tend to simply reflect the attitudes of society or the assumptions of a bygone era. The future of all churches will depend on how relevant and authentic their mission statement is and how sincerely they pursue that mission. The “build it and they will come” approach of the past no longer works. 

The statistics cited above may seem inaccurate to some of us. We hear a lot about the rise of Christian Nationalism and the influence of conservative and right-wing Evangelicals. One would think that at least among those groups, some form (a sick form in my view) of Christianity is growing in membership. However, such is not the case. When people are surveyed regarding their religious status, they often choose “Evangelical” simply because they see Evangelical as the appropriate identity for anyone supporting the Republican Party. Today, Evangelical = Republican in the minds of many Americans. Many of those identifying as Evangelical never darken the door of a local congregation. They are not ready to call themselves atheists (which they identify with being liberal or Communist), so they choose to label themselves Evangelical since they associate being Evangelical with being a conservative, right-wing Republican. 

To be honest, I am not alarmed by the Pew survey for several reasons.

  1. Many of the founders of our country were not what most people would understand as conservative Christians today. A lot of them, highly influenced by the Enlightenment, were Deist in their conceptions of God. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and influential in the formation of the U S Constitution, even provided his version of the New Testament (“The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” also called “The Jefferson Bible”) removing all mention of miracles and stressing Jesus’ moral message. Our nation was founded on the Enlightenment principles of reason, liberty, and the dignity of humankind. (However, we have yet to fully implement these principles to include all citizens. When we are at our best, we strive to form “a more perfect union.” Sadly, we have rarely been at our best.) The tragic history of Christianity in Europe with its religious wars, Inquisitions, witch hunts, ecclesiastical control and censorship, and state churches led the founders to insist on a separation of church and state—the exact opposite of what Christian Nationalists want today! 
  2. Our nation, like all those in Europe, has never been a Christian nation in the sense of following Jesus. (One could date the beginning of this tendency among nations to the fourth century CE when the church made its bed with the emperor Constantine.) A nation founded on the genocide, enslavement, and oppression of other races (a legacy which continues to curse our society today) can scarcely be described as Christian if Jesus is the source of any meaningful definition of what being Christian entails. We have diluted and debased the term “Christian” to the point that many of those claiming to be Christian are racist, arrogant, closeminded, violent, and cruelly judgmental. I’m even reluctant to call myself Christian today because of how the rabid right-wing has coopted the term to signify something not even remotely resembling the Jesus of the Gospels. I prefer to be called “a follower of Jesus” or, to be more honest, “one who is trying to follow Jesus.” The degradation of the Christian faith and its replacement by a neo-fascist form of nationalism is a most dangerous form of idolatry which, in time, will self-destruct. The problem is that such self-destruction will also bring about much pain and damage to innocent people. There can be no good ending to any form of fascism, Christian or otherwise. 
  3. Church historians point out that every 500 years, the church undergoes a massive transformation. It occurred with the fall of the Roman Empire, the end of the Middle Ages, and the Protestant Reformation. Some church historians believe we are entering a new period of transformation which could last up to 250 years. If such is the case, the church will go through a challenging transition. The ways we have been and done church will radically change. Already we are beginning to see some of the circumstances which will necessitate such a transformation. The “Build it and they will come” posture is DOA. An insular church spending its resources and time on its own preservation is destined for extinction. Somehow, churches must find a way to make “a journey inward” to recover a deep and relevant spirituality and at the same time to find ways “to journey outward” in attempts to join Christ in mending this world. As I have repeatedly pointed out in this blog, the gospel is all about (in the words of Jesus) “Seeking first the Kingdom of God and its justice” on this earth. It has never been about escaping earth and going to heaven when we die. 
  4. The church has always been at its best when it has been a minority group in cultures. As a minority, Christians have understood and incarnated the “Way” of Jesus in and for this world. They have identified more with the oppressed and marginalized, have reflected more authentically the generosity and sacrifice of compassionate discipleship, and have intentionally sought the justice and shalom Jesus announced in his inaugural sermon found in Luke 4:16-30. In such times, the church has been faithfully in the world without being of the world. Participating with God in “mending the world” has been its mission. And like Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, and MLK, the Body of Christ understood that “means” and “ends” must reflect the same spirit and goals. [That is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from the temptation stories of Jesus found in the Gospels. (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13)]

The church of the future must be dedicated to the good news of an emancipating gospel—glad tidings about the liberation of humankind from anything which might be oppressive. That includes evil, guilt, and sin, but also any form of economic, political, and social oppression. In bearing such witness, churches must strive for justice, work for peace, practice compassion, and incarnate the unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, and everlasting love of God. In other words, we must follow Jesus and be done with our arbitrary and rigid doctrinal differences. The central questions we must ask in every aspect of our life together as the Body of Christ are simply these: “Are we following Jesus? Are who we are and what we are doing in harmony with the example of the one we call Lord? Does the world see the God Jesus revealed in us and our mission? How can we join God in mending this world?” 

I am reminded of the words of St. Francis: “Preach the gospel always. When necessary, use words.” Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them.” I doubt if God will care much about our doctrines, our church attendance, or even our offerings. God will care about how much we love. I can’t imagine any of us being judged for loving too much. However, if Jesus is to be trusted, we will face the following questions: “Did we feed the hungry? Give water to the thirsty? Welcome the stranger (immigrants?)? Clothe the naked? Visit the sick? Minister to those in prison?” (See Matthew 25:31-46) Those are the questions we can expect at the “Last Judgment.” From the budgets, activities, and missions of most churches in the U S, one would assume that these “Red Letter” words of Jesus were never spoken. With the coming transition of the church, such words must guide the church as it seeks to mend the world and be true to its Lord.

I have little hope for the church of today, but I have great hope for the Body of Christ tomorrow. I believe the main reason young people are abandoning Christianity is not because they reject Jesus. It’s because most churches simply are not following Jesus and providing a witness to the good news of healing and liberation he announced with his inaugural sermon in Luke 4: 16-21—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good new to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (“The acceptable year of the Lord” is a reference to Jubilee, the most radical program for justice ever envisioned by the Jewish people.) Recover that gospel—the real gospel and not the counterfeits that have plagued our country for centuries, and people who are seeking truth, God, and love will flock to our churches–provided we first go out to them and live the gospel, the real gospel in our time and place.  

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