Pew Research released the latest edition of current religious trends in the United States. The results merely confirm what sociologists have tracked for some time, and what pastors have noticed in the pew: as a whole religious affiliation, in particular Christianity, it is on the decline. As a whole Christianity appears to be dying. However, there are still opponents who would decry otherwise.
In particular Ed Stetzer, from Lifeway Research, seems to have it in for the Pew Research data.
Stetzer also disputes the results.
His rebuttal is fair, but incomplete. In my opinion, Christianity is struggling and will continue to struggle. Here’s why I think the Pew Research data points to a deep problem with Christianity in North America as a whole.
First the results from study, the highlights you can view in the graph below (from Pew Research).
[For additional insight visit the link above. For commentary check out Facts and Trends.]
I don’t think anybody will dispute the key findings: the religiously affiliated (the nominals) in name only are dropping the moniker (becoming the ‘nones’). Conversely, highly committed groups remain steadfast in their faithfulness.
This leads many to conclude that Christianity is in fact not dying, such as Stetzer. In his mind, despite the decline in every religious category, those results merely clarify who’s in and who’s out, and those that remain are doing OK. (See his article on, “Christianity isn’t dying, nominal Christianity is.“) This conclusion, however, relies on discounting the unaffiliated ‘nones’. I would agree treating nominals as a distinct category is necessary, but I disagree they don’t count for anything and are worthy to discard in order to flesh out the ‘real’ Christians. If anything, nominals are a product of an ineffectual church that lost their way clinging to the prestige of Christendom. Certainly nothing to celebrate.
The struggles of mainline traditions, who tend to have a higher percentage of loosely affiliate members, point to a future that I believe will, and is, affect more resilient traditions such as evangelicalism.
Evangelicalism tends to have more committed members and in Stetzer’s words, are ‘holding steady’. But is holding steady good enough? Is ‘holding steady’ reflecting a form of robust Christianity capable of surviving the loss of Christendom? Is a smaller committed segment maintaining a status quo enough to conclude Christianity is not dying?
In the very least we can agree there’s no revival and there’s ‘real research’ to support the assertion.
If the best and brightest churches can merely ‘hold steady’ is this really an indicator of overall success? In the very least it points to reality that although there are some traditions that are not dying, they’re NOT growing. Those that hold steady do so through 3 very specific ways: births, transfers, immigration. There are exceedingly few churches that grow by evangelism.
This problem stretches beyond the data trends and into a broader cultural reality that the church, from mainline to contemporary, has yet to figure out how to deal with: Christendom is eroding and we still don’t have an answer. If we are not careful we will look at the data and think that we are doing a great job translating the gospel message into a new cultural context. But the data does not lie: Christianity as a whole is dying, and the pockets that show resilience rely almost entirely on recycling existing Christians.
Although this is not indicative of an imminent collapse as some have predicted, it is a reliable preview of where the church continues to trend–into obscurity.