Is Christianity Dying?

January 7, 2013 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Broken Down ChurchIt was quite a byline:  “‘Protestant’ is no longer America’s top religious umbrella brand.  It’s been rained out by the soaring number of ‘Nones’ – people who claim no faith affiliation.”  When Cathy Lynn Grossman, religion editor for USA Today, penned these words for her article, “As Protestants decline, those with no religion gain,”[1] they served as yet another sobering statistical reminder concerning the decline of Christianity in America.  More and more people, it seems, are simply not concerned with matters of faith.

But not so fast.  At least if you believe Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research, who explains the statistical shift in the “nones” like this:

“Cultural Christians” mark “Christian” on a survey rather than another world religion because they know they are not Hindu, Jewish, etc., or because their family always has. “Churchgoing Christians” identify as such because they occasionally attend worship services.  On the other hand, “conversion Christians” claim to have had a faith experience in which they were transformed, resulting in a deeply held belief.  The recent growth in “nones,” I believe, comes primarily from cultural and churchgoing Christians shifting to the category no longer using a religious identification.[2]

Stetzer surmises that more and more people are increasingly feeling at liberty to publicly admit what many of them already privately suspected:  that Christianity is not a tenable way to view of the world and so there is no reason to be overly concerned with what this faith – or any other faith, for that matter – teaches and preaches.  And because there is no longer the social stigma attached to being irreligious that there once was, these people feel comfortable designating their faith commitment as “none.”

So what does all this tell us?  I would offer two thoughts on this data.

First, this data is a good reminder that, contrary to the gleeful predilections of naysayers, Christianity is not on the brink of extinction.  On April 8, 1966, TIME Magazine famously carried a cover story titled, “Is God Dead?” where eminent theologians opined on the possibility of doing theology without God.  Christianity, it seemed to these scholars, was on the decline while secularism was on the rise.  The “nones” were on the ascendancy and would shortly squelch the relic religious commitments of the Dark Ages.  But those relic religious commitments to a God from ages past stubbornly refused to die.  Christianity did not fall flat.  And Christianity will not fall flat.  As the above statistics intimate and as Ed Stetzer explains, it’s not that Christianity in America is declining per se, it’s that people are becoming more honest about what they actually believe.

Second, this data reminds us that Christianity and culture don’t mix quite as well as some might have previously thought and others might currently wish.  The desire to have a culturally Christian nation didn’t work so well in the first century as the nascent Christian Church was belabored and bludgeoned by the Roman Empire and it doesn’t work so well in the twenty-first century in a secular society that disparages and derides the Christian faith.  This should not come as a surprise.  Christianity and culture will always be at odds with each other, for the perfect law of God and the sinful sensibilities of men can never coalesce.

Ultimately, this tendentious relationship between Christianity and culture should clarify our mission.  For all too often, the Christian mission has been reduced and relegated to little more than that of fighting culture wars in hopes of forcibly shaping society.  However, such efforts have proven largely futile.  Yes, there are times when Christians need to stand up for the truth in society.  And no, I do not have any problem with Christians lobbying governing officials on issues of moral import – issues such as abortion or caring for the poor.  These things are indeed important.  But in order to win on Christian positions, we must first win over people. After all, people hold positions.  Positions do not hold people.  If you don’t win over a person, you won’t win on a position.

Finally, even if things seem grim in society, take heart!  Persecution, ridicule, and mockery from without the Church and scandal, avarice, and pride from within the Church have not been able to destroy a faith founded by an itinerant preacher from the backwaters of Galilee.  I have a feeling some statistics about Christianity’s decline aren’t going to be able to take it down either.

[1] Cathy Lynn Grossman, “As Protestants decline, those with no religion gain,” USA Today (10.9.2012).

[2] Ed Stetzer, “Column: Christianity isn’t dying,” USA Today (10.18.2012).

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