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The Decline of Christian America

The Decline of Christian America

A good friend recently asked me to tackle the subject of the decline of Christianity in America, so here goes. Newsweek editor Jon Meacham addressed the decline of Christian America in the April 13, 2009 issue of Newsweek (available online at http://www.newsweek.com/id/192583). Relying on data drawn from the recently released American Religious Identification Survey, Meacham pointed out that from 1990 to 2008, Americans who identify themselves as Christian has declined from 86 to 76%, a whopping 10% decline in two decades. In addition, Meacham noted the following:

  • Americans who identified themselves as ‘Not Religious’ rose from 8 to 15% in the same time period.
  • Self-identified atheists/agnostics have grown from one million to 3.6 million.
  • 30% of Americans identify themselves as ‘spiritual,’ not ‘religious.’
  • 34% of American Christians define themselves as ‘born-again.’

These numbers come as a surprise to me, but not the way you might expect. I can’t believe 76% of Americans still identify with Christianity. That statistic is a shocker to me! Based on that number alone, churches everywhere should be overflowing in attendance. This is clearly not the case in historically conservative Central Pennsylvania. The following chart is from the 2000 report of the Association of Religious Data Archives.

York County, Pennsylvania   

Denominational Groups, 2000

28,496

 

99,121

 

1,788

 

37,745

 

4,532

 

210,069

Evangelical Protestant

Mainline Protestant

Orthodox

Catholic

Other

Unclaimed

http://www.thearda.com/mapsReports/reports/counties/42133_2000.asp

In York County alone, of the 382,000 residents, a staggering 210,000 were categorized as ‘unclaimed’ by the 188 religious groups reporting in the County. That equates to 55% of all York County residents who are not members of any religious group. So, when I say that I’m shocked to hear that 76% of Americans identify themselves as Christian, you can at least see my logic.

I have two things to say, one an observation, the second a suggestion. First of all, if you go back and look the ARIS data there is one thing that jumps off the pages. Consider the following:

  • From 1990 to 2001, the number of Americans who identified themselves as Christian declined from 86% to 76.7%, a near 10% decline. Now that I’ll concede is massive blood loss.
  • But, from 2001 to 2008, the number of Americans who identified themselves as Christian declined only from 76.7% to 76.0%, a decline of less than one percent.

The data point worth considering is the 10% decline that occurred from 1990 to 2001. I’m not exactly sure what happened during that period. Yet, from 2001 to 2008 there has been a stabilization of sorts. I’m not sure what accounts for that either. I’ll leave that to the experts to sort out.

Secondly, I have a humble suggestion. Is our criteria for how we define a Christian in America too broad? Consider the following point raised in a recent Barna Group survey:

  • 22% of self-described Christians hold to unbiblical ideas about God (i.e. everyone is god, god refers to the realization of human potential, etc.)
  • 40% do not believe that Satan is a real being with an additional 20% saying they ‘somewhat agree.’
  • 22% believe that Jesus Christ sinned while on earth with an additional 17% saying they ‘somewhat agree.’
  • 38% do not believe that the Holy Spirit is a real being or person and an additional 20% again say they ‘somewhat agree.’
  • 22% do not believe the Bible is accurate in its principles or teaching.

Before I say anything further, consider the following ancient Christian document (probably 2nd century AD), the Apostle’s Creed.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

I’ll grant that everyone in America has the right to identify himself or herself by whatever religious label they prefer, but, does the fact that I tell my kids that I’m a magician because I can easily trick them make me a magician? Most of you would call my ‘tricks’ foolish, not magical.

Is the person who calls himself a Christian bound to hold to Christian doctrine? I would answer yes. Others may accuse me of being narrow, but the Church has long held to fixed standards of doctrine dating back to the early Church and Christians actually believed those things! See any of the major creeds and councils of the first five centuries for proof.

Here is in fact what I believe has happened in America, and in Europe, and ANYWHERE where Christianity has experienced a period of decline. The process of decline is a series of steps that take generations of time.

devotion

A particular generation discovers Christianity, embracing its doctrine, practice, and ethics and expresses DEVOTION to Christianity.

That generation inevitably has children and if the parents fail to pass on the energetic devotion, their children acquire the FAITH, or belief in Christian doctrine without energetic passion for Christianity. They believe the right things but are not devoted.

As that generation births children, if they fail to pass on the faith (i.e. doctrine), their children will acquire only the MORALITY of Christianity. This generation may have high and biblical ethical or moral standards but may fail to understand their doctrinal underpinnings.

Finally, this generation has children of their own and if they fail to pass on the morality of Christianity, their children may likely opt for NO AFFILIATION or very loosely identify themselves as Christian, but only because of family history, not because of personal belief or practice.

This is in fact where I believe many people who identify themselves as Christian are today. Clearly, many self-identified Christians do not believe in Christian doctrine (i.e. the Apostle’s Creed) nor observe Christian practices, nor live according to Christian ethics. They are Christian in name only.

The deluge of information on world religions has not made this identity confusion any easier. Many Americans today would agree with the statement that all religions are equally valid expression of the same universal truth. Frankly, I believe most Americans are overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin in sorting out what they believe. “Should I start with the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, or the Gnostic Gospels?” “When will I ever have time to look into all this?”

In many respects, I can understand why Americans opt for the belief that all religions are equally true. The religious landscape is confusing. I think this a call for Christians to exercise loving patience, to create churches where people are free to safely explore the deep questions of the faith, to be welcomed to question our most preciously held doctrinal beliefs without scorn.

This is in fact what we are after in starting City Church. We hope to be a church where people can safely explore historic Christianity without a ton of pressure or scorn. We hope to have a friendly dialogue about the doctrine, practices, and ethics of the Christian faith. It is O.K. to be confused about what you believe, but it is worth the time now to sort it out. Jesus noted that on the Last Day, as all men stand before Him in judgment, there will be many self-identified ‘religious’ people confused about their standing with God. Matthew 7:21-23 says

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

At the end of the day, the one who proves that He is a Christian is the one who knows Jesus as Lord, the one who does the Father’s will, which Jesus said was to believe in Him (John 6:29), that He was God’s Messiah, Son of God, Savior of sinners, the Judge of all men. Does Jesus’ definition of what it means to be a Christian match the pop American one? I’m not convinced it does. In fact, I believe it would be better if people would stop identifying themselves as Christian if, in fact, they do not believe nor practice Christianity.

My gut says the number of Christians, per Jesus’ definition, is probably less than 25%, but who am I? I could be completely low-balling on this one. Regardless, I expect more and more Christians to cease identifying with Christianity as they further discover its doctrine, practices, and ethical teachings. And as the number of self-identified Christians shrinks, the mission of the Church becomes ever clearer. No longer will there be confusion about who is and who is not a Christian. More and more Americans will be comfortable in not feeling the necessity to identify that way. The Church can complain about it, seek political power to ‘re-Christianize’ America, sit on their hands perplexed, or take up Jesus’ call to winsomely proclaim the historic Gospel to a confused culture. I’m betting on the last one.

3 Replies to “The Decline of Christian America”

  1. Aaron,
    Thanks for the excellent insights and your interpretation of the data. I wholly agree that our definition is too broad. Even in the very conservative church which intentionally endeavors to remain doctrinally pure, I find a lack of understanding and application among the older youth who have grown up in the church immersed in “the faith” and surrounded by “the faithful.” One of the most cherished moments of my ministry is when a late teen or twenty-something comes to grips with the ramifications of the faith and decides to be devoted. Yet one reason this is so cherished is because it is too rare. Too many who grow up within reach and sound of the faith have unwittingly bought into remnants of other worldviews and formed an eclectic one that they would yet call Christian thought, doctrinally, it is not. Are they God's children? I agree with you, that one who would call himself a Christian will hold to Chrstian doctrine. Granted, some are His children who have not yet reckoned with the ramifications of what they profess to believe and the winnowing of believers and non is in the hands of God. Believers will be purified and , yes, we are all in process to that end even now. But the stark reality of your point presses on me to make the Gospel and its truths plain to my flock . Thank you. It will be with more fervency that I enter the pulpit this Sunday on account of your blog.
    Bill Phillips

  2. I think you have a particularly interesting observation here and yet I might suggest we dig a little deeper into these generational studies of sorts. Outside the context of religion, generational studies are all the buzz right now as I am sure you have seen.

    What many historians find is that this process not unlike others and they often repeat themselves- see “The Forth Turning”. Studies have shown that this process is cyclical which would suggest that the generation to follow the “non-affliated” may be the devoted once again. I might assume this would mean that the rebellion of one generation is a necessary evil for generations to follow.

    I recall my father-in-law sharing with me several years ago the three chairs which is very similar to your four-step process… this of coure may come out of the SBC world so I am not sure if the PCA folks would approve.

    The first generation is fired up, enthusiastic, and dedicated to God.
    The second generation goes to services. They go through the motions, but the fire and zeal are missing.
    The third generation doesn’t care. They give themselves completely over to sin.

    http://lavistachurchofchrist.org/LVSermons/Thre

  3. I think you have a particularly interesting observation here and yet I might suggest we dig a little deeper into these generational studies of sorts. Outside the context of religion, generational studies are all the buzz right now as I am sure you have seen.

    What many historians find is that this process not unlike others and they often repeat themselves- see “The Forth Turning”. Studies have shown that this process is cyclical which would suggest that the generation to follow the “non-affliated” may be the devoted once again. I might assume this would mean that the rebellion of one generation is a necessary evil for generations to follow.

    I recall my father-in-law sharing with me several years ago the three chairs which is very similar to your four-step process… this of coure may come out of the SBC world so I am not sure if the PCA folks would approve.

    The first generation is fired up, enthusiastic, and dedicated to God.
    The second generation goes to services. They go through the motions, but the fire and zeal are missing.
    The third generation doesn’t care. They give themselves completely over to sin.

    http://lavistachurchofchrist.org/LVSermons/Thre

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