The Pew Survey On Christianity: It’s Not As Bad Or As Good As You Might Think

May 18, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Church and CrossThe Washington Post led with a headline that sounded nearly apocalyptic: “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion.”[1] The faithful quickly jumped in to temper the premature reports of Christianity’s cardiac arrest with op-ed pieces like this one by Ed Stetzer that ran in USA Today: “Survey fail – Christianity isn’t dying: Ed Stetzer.”[2]

The topic of discussion and debate is a new Pew Research Center poll that finds:

… the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%.[3]

Taken by themselves, these statistics sound dire and dour. But, as Ed Stetzer helpfully points out in his article, there is more to these statistics than what first meets the eye:

Rather than predict the impending doom of the church in America, this latest study affirms what many researchers have said before. Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified. Churches aren’t emptying; rather, those who were Christian in name only are now categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction and engagement …

Nominals – people whose religious affiliation is in name only – are becoming nones – people who check “none of the above” box on a survey.

Those who value their faith enough to wake up on Sunday morning and head to their local church are mostly still going. What I have described as “convictional Christianity” will continue. Those who say their faith is very important to their lives are not suddenly jettisoning those beliefs to become atheists.

According to Pew, unaffiliated Americans grew from 16 to nearly 23% in the last seven years. That increase largely came from the ranks of Catholics and Mainline Protestants, religious traditions with high numbers of nominals.

Stetzer’s point is well taken. By no stretch of the imagination should we read the Pew survey as a funeral dirge for Christianity – especially for Evangelical Christianity, contrary to this misreading of the Pew survey.[4] Still, even if Pew’s numbers do not portend the sure demise of Christianity, they do indicate a real shift in Christianity. Here’s how.

For better or for worse, the nominal Christians who once warmed the pews in Mainline Protestant churches and are now hemorrhaging to the “nones” had as their counterparts the academic Protestant Christians among the elites. Names such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Paul Tillich, and Karl Barth once held court as America’s public intellectuals – their books being widely read and disseminated not only into Protestant Christendom, but into society in general. These men enjoyed unrivaled cultural gravitas – so much so, that each of them took their turn gracing the cover of Time Magazine. And though none of these men can be considered orthodox in their doctrine in an Evangelical Christian sense, they nevertheless passed down to American society some generally and even genuinely Christian concerns and insights. Reinhold Niebuhr defended a robust doctrine of original sin, thundering against the pride of society and those who thought they were generally good people. Harry Emerson Fosdick, though he firmly espoused a liberal Protestant ethos, was not afraid to critique it by warning the Church against a blind cultural accommodation to the spirit of the age. Paul Tillich served as an apologist of sorts, explaining how life’s deepest existential questions can be answered by divine revelation. And Karl Barth bequeathed to us an 8,000 page series on church dogmatics that still informs – and occasionally irritates – Christian thinkers to this day. The work these and other men did kept Christian concerns in the forefront of people’s minds and Christian ethical commitments in the center of people’s worldviews.

The latest Pew survey reminds us that these Christian concerns and ethics are disappearing in broad society. The Protestant lions of old are being replaced by the secularist elites of today. The Pew survey, then, does not just tell the story of a non-committed Christian-esque demographic that, in a twist of delicious justice, is deservedly disappearing; it tells the story of a broader Christian influence that – even if it was of the liberal variety – is waning.

This, of course, is not all bad. The heterodoxy and, in some instances, the outright heresy of these Protestant theologians posed a serious challenge to orthodox Christianity. But, then again, the disappearance of influential Protestantism is also not all good. After all, these Protestant theologians did serve broadly, even if unintentionally, as a tenuous bridge between orthodox Christians on the one hand and powerful elites on the other, enabling the two sides to talk to each other.[5] But this bridge has now collapsed, leaving a yawning canyon between a group of orthodox Christians who are increasingly frightened by and hostile to secularism and a group of powerful elites who are increasingly uninformed about and uninhibited by a generally Christian view of life. Our challenge, then, is to bridge this canyon. And that is no easy task.

I agree with Ed Stetzer that Christians should not respond to the Pew survey apoplectically. But the survey does make me miss some of the Protestant leaders of yesteryear, no matter how much I may have been at odds with them theologically. They may have not always been right, but sometimes, they were helpful.

_______________________________________

[1] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion,” The Washington Post (5.12.2015).

[2] Ed Stetzer, “Survey fail – Christianity isn’t dying: Ed Stetzer,” USA Today (5.13.2015).

[3]America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center (5.12.2015).

[4] Although I share many of Matt Walsh’s concerns with what he saw of Evangelical Christianity and would agree that many Evangelical churches need more robust and Christocentric teaching and preaching, his stated cause of Christianity’s losses is not specifically born out by the Pew data.

[5] For example, Billy Graham and Karl Barth were friends and were comfortable enough with each other to spar with each other on occasion.   See Mark Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 47.

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