The State of the Church In America: Hint: It's Not Dying
For the past few years, there’s been a debate going on as to whether or not Christianity in America is on the decline. After several studies and polls indicated Christianity on a downward track, the Christian community went abuzz with opinions on what should be done to reclaim our faith in America. A particular emphasis has been placed on the “Nones”—a growing segment in the U.S. who claim no religious affiliation. We’ve written about Nones here, here and here, if you’re interested in learning more.
Ed Stetzer, President of Lifeway Research, has spent the last few years studying this phenomenon, trying to figure out if Christianity in America is really as dire as it seems. As perhaps a follow-up to his 2012 report (Christianity Isn’t Dying, Cultural Christianity Is), Stetzer again emphasizes the church in America is not dying. Rather, it’s being clarified.
Stetzer writes, As I see it, the numbers of people who those of us in the church would say are actually committed Christians—those who are practicing a vibrant faith—are not dying off. The Church is not dying. It is just being more clearly defined.
The "Nones" category is growing quickly, but the change is coming by way of Cultural and Congregational Christians who no longer feel the societal pressure to be "Christian." They feel comfortable freeing themselves from a label that was not true of them in the first place. Convictional Christians are not leaving the faith; the "squishy middle," as I like to call it, is simply being flattened.
In other words, while some see flocks of American’s leaving the faith, Stetzer simply sees people who were never really Christians to begin with, finally feeling the freedom to unidentify with a religion that was perhaps handed down to them by their family or community.
However, even though the true number of Christians in America might not be changing so fast, this identification shift does have an impact on “Convictional Christians,” those of us truly defined by and living out our faith. Stetzer makes several observations about what this shift means to us:
1. We’ll feel the cost more. As more and more Americans distance themselves from the label “Christian,” those left in the category will perhaps feel isolated or made to feel intolerant for their beliefs.
2. We’ll lose influence—in the traditional sense. But, as Stetzer points out, Jesus doesn’t work the same way the world works. “Christianity may be losing its top-down political and cultural influence,” Stetzer writes, “but Jesus spoke of His followers making an impact in a very different manner. He taught that God's kingdom was subversive and underground. He used examples like yeast, which changes things from the inside, and mustard seeds, which are small and must be planted in order to grow up and out.”
3. There’s no place for nominal belief. As we continue moving into a post-Christian culture, we have to set aside the comfortable middle ground and truly become active agents for God’s Kingdom.
Stetzer reminds us not to push the panic button. “The sky is not falling. Christians are not leaving the faith in droves, even though some people are screaming that loudly. In many cases, people who once called themselves Christians are simply no longer doing that… what we need is a mobilized—rather than demoralized—mission force.”
To read more about the state of Christianity in America, check out these articles:
Kelly Givens is the editor of iBelieve.com.