By Franklin Dumond
WASHINGTON — The United States is a significantly less Christian country than it was seven years ago.
That’s the top finding — one that will ricochet through American faith, culture and politics — in the Pew Research Center’s newest report, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” released Tuesday [May 12, 2015].
This trend “is big, it’s broad and it’s everywhere,” said Alan Cooperman, Pew’s director of religion research.—USA Today, Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Reported on both the local and national news media the research reports that about 70% of Americans label themselves Christian while in 2007 about 78% chose the Christian label. At the same time 23% of Americans now classify themselves as have no religious affiliation up from 16% in 2007.
Several other features of the research report that evangelicals remain more stable in their percentage of the population while Catholics have lost both market share and real numbers. The study was based on 35,000 respondents.
Noted church researcher Ed Stetzer often remarks that facts are our friends. It appears to me that this is true of the current study despite the alarmist reaction in both local and national media. There is cause for alarm but there is also a basis for optimism.
Cause for Alarm: An 8% loss is serious. This accounts for about a 1% loss of market share every year since the last survey taken in 2007. Among evangelicals, however, the loss was much smaller with a decline from 21% of the adult population to 19% of the adult population.
Basis for Optimism: One important fact not included in the news coverage of the research study is that the overall number of believers in the United States has remained relatively stable for a generation or more. What has changed is the rate of growth of the Christian movement in the United States. Growing at a slower rate than the overall population means a loss of market share but no necessarily a loss of total numbers. Thus the imminent demise of the Christian church is not likely.
Cause for Alarm: The rise of the “Nones” is significant. Nearly one-fourth of the population surveyed indicated no religious preference. Cultural trends influence this response. In the middle of the 20th century going to church was an accepted, even expected, cultural trait. The Christian church in America enjoyed preferential treatment and competing activities were simply not allowed. For example sports leagues and extra-curricular activities were never scheduled on Sunday mornings and in many communities were not allowed on Wednesday evenings.
Basis for Optimism. The loss of cultural Christians leaves a ‘lean, mean, fighting machine’ of believers who have intentionally chosen their faith. It’s been a long time since I heard the stories of church leaders who served faithfully for 20-30-40 years finally coming to a personal faith after all those years of service.
Cause for Alarm. The downward trend in market share has resulted in a loss of preferential treatment for the Christian Church and has even tended toward a hostile environment of skepticism and distrust. In some cultures the current treatment of some Christians in America would be considered persecution. Can the church in America survive in a hostile environment?
Basis for Optimism. The loss of preferential treatment for the institutional church removes many of the automatic tools designed to propagate the faith that were available to earlier generations. Relationships, however, remain the key to winning people. Thus with a larger proportion of non-believers the fields remain white for harvest if believers take seriously their relationship to non-believers.
Cause for Alarm. It is harder to reach people these days by just having a physical presence on a busy street. A church planter who became a mentor to me in my younger days always advocated three key ingredients for church growth in the 1950s: “location, location, location”. He knew that in his day folks would come to church, if they knew where the church was located. Thus visibility was the key ingredient to church growth.
Basis for Optimism. The gospel still works! Ministry remains hard work but for those pastors and church leaders who will intentionally hold forth the Good News life change will still happen. The key ingredient these days is not location of facility. Nor is it style of worship. The key ingredient these days is gaining a hearing for the gospel so that the message of who Jesus is and what He does can begin to change people’s lives.
As I look at the research I find the cause for alarm moving me to a new sense of urgency. As I reflect on the implications of the research I find a new basis for optimism not in a blind, uninformed faith but in the rock solid conviction that the Lord is still at work in our world. Part of my optimism is based on the conviction expressed in the old gospel song:
“We’ll work! ‘Til Jesus comes we’ll work.
We’ll work ‘til Jesus comes and we’ll be gathered home.”