Part of a series on Christianity in present-day America
So, this isn’t going to be controversial at all.
In this post, we try to figure out if Christianity in America is in trouble, or headed in that direction. Future posts may look at WHY the statistics show what they do, but for now, we will just figure out what is going on.
Right off the bat, I need to clarify that my intent is NOT to attack the foundations of Christianity, or individual Christians. I do, however, feel that prominent Christian leaders are fair-game to illustrate what is going on.
“Be ruthless with systems, be kind with people”– The Late Michael Brooks
I’m going to be using hyperlinks, rather than Chicago/Turabian style notes, for now. Also, any biblical citations are from the New International Version, as that is the translation that I know the best. Also, if you have an issue with what translation of scripture I am using, please seek help.
Is Christianity Dying in America?
To answer that, I think we need to look at some numbers. According to a Pew Research Poll conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults self-describe as Christian. Down a full 12 percentage points from just a decade prior. The Bristol Herald Courier went ahead and graphed it for us:
That is a rather extreme drop to see in a 10-year period. Certainly not the trend you want to see if you are a church leader, or even just a churchgoer who wants the church’s lights to stay on. A trend, however, doesn’t mean that said trend will continue into the future. So let’s explore that a bit.
“The rate at which Christians are declining is very striking,” said Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew. “And the share of Americans who have no religion is growing very rapidly, which is just as striking.”
Furthermore, to add injury to injury, as reported in the Pew report referenced above, for the first time, more Americans say they attend religious services a few times a year or less (54%) than those who attend at least once a month (45%).
Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary said: “This rapid shift is about generational replacement. The most religious folks are the ones who are dying and the least religious folks are the ones coming in.”
If we look at demographic information, things become even more bleak. Each generation has fewer self-identified Christians than the one before it. And while 61% of the Silent Generation reports going to church once or more a month, only 35% of Millennials reported the same. It was widely thought that Millennials are leaving the church as young people and would rejoin as they approached middle age, and got married, had children, etc. We’ve reached a time when a lot of millennials have spouses and children and mortgages, yet the trend continues. The data simply does not bear that out on a macroscopic level. If we project these trends forward, it becomes extremely likely that as the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers move on to join the Church Triumphant, a whole lot of churches will close, with their building turned into a fancy postmodern restaurant or bar or night-club, or just a parking lot downtown.
Why is this happening?
Well, it’s sort of interesting. If you look around, you see opinions from church leaders, people with grey hair, even millennials who DO go to church, but unchurched millennials seem to be treated like some exotic type of Arctic Tern and they are trying to figure out why our migration patterns have changed. As it turns out, we do speak English, and aren’t that difficult to find. It simply doesn’t occur to anybody to do so.
So what are the already frozen-chosen saying? Church leaders are quick to blame things like ‘young people want to sin’ (which makes no sense. 100% of people at 100% of churches sin – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – Romans 3:23), or ‘universities have way too many liberal atheist professors’ (I attended a public university, and like most public educators, professors avoid discussing religion like the plague, unless it is a religion or history class, and even then it is only in a neutral, academic sense), Bill Nye the Science Guy teaching evolution (yeah, really). Anything but looking in the mirror.
So, as a millennial who doesn’t attend church, I’ll offer myself as ‘Exhibit A’ – Arctic Tern #24561.
Most of the explanations that I’ve heard either assume Millennials are idiots (I have many peers who I am pretty sure are not idiots), or have explanations that are insultingly reductive. This guy gets the closest out of any of them, but suggests no changes in response to his reasoning:
So, let me start out by answering the question of ‘Why don’t you go to church anymore’ with another question. Why should I? What is there for me? Will I receive a deeper theological understanding? Hear how to be a better person? Receive the answer to Life the Universe and Everything? Failing that, will people at least be nice to me?
Most of Christianity comes off as hypocritical, a lot of worship appears performative, a lot of Christians seem standoffish, and a lot of Christians just aren’t following their book. When we stand outside the church looking in, we DO NOT see the face of Christ shining outward. What do we see?
Let’s talk about how Christianity looks from the outside – it’s ‘brand’ as it were – vs some basic theology…. next week.