“When it comes to religion, the USA is now land of the freelancers.” That is the opening statement of Cathy Lynn Grossman’s front-page article in the March 9 edition of USA Today concerning the fast changing face of Christianity in America.
In the article, Grossman looks at the results of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), which is touted to be the most comprehensive look at American religious preferences available considering the fact the U.S. census report excludes questions concerning religious practice.
The news for people of faith is not good. Since 1990, the last time the survey was conducted, the number of people who claim no religion at all has risen from 8% to 15%. In contrast, all of the mainline denominations have seen a significant decline in the number of people who describe themselves as participants. According to the survey, the number of Baptist declined from 19.3% to 15.8%. Methodists dropped from 8% to 5% and there are now approximately 2.8 million people who identify themselves with some sort of “new religious movement,” including “Wiccan, pagan, or Spiritualist.” These numbers are all the more troubling when you consider the fact that the adult population of the United States increased by “nearly 50 million” during the same 18-year period.
ARIS also revealed a major demographic shift in the religious makeup of the country according to geographic region. The Deep South and California saw significant increases in the Catholic population while Protestant numbers in those areas remained static or declined. For example, my state of South Carolina saw shrinkage in the number of Protestants from 88% of the population in 1990 down to 73% in 2008. During the same time period, the number of Catholics rose from 6% to 10% and the number of those who answered “none” to the religious preference question more than tripled rising from 3% to 10%.
The only bright spot in the survey may be the number of people who indentify themselves as a “generic Christian,” by describing themselves, not as denominational but as “born again, Christian, non-denominational, or evangelical.” That number remained statistically the same at 14.2%.
The information gleaned by the ARIS will not come as a surprise for most Christian leaders. It doesn’t take a survey to convince people who are on the front lines of Christian service and ministry that it is getting harder every year, not only to reach those who are unchurched but also to retain the churched. Why? Why are so many people in America leaving the faith and so few turning to Christ though faith? I believe there are many reasons both large and small but I think they can all be summarized in five broad categories.
1. Since 1990, there has been a significant rise in the number of people who are what I call “aggressive atheists.” In past generations, atheists have been a rather quiet group, preferring to keep their unbelief to themselves. But the last 18 years has seen a sharp rise in the number of aggressive atheists who proclaim their atheism with enthusiasm and have gone on what could be called an “anti-evangelism” or “reverse evangelism” mission with the goal being the destruction of any belief in God. This has a chilling effect on believers as they are caught somewhat flat-footed and unprepared to defend their beliefs against the attacks of these aggressive atheists. This leads us to the second reason for decline.
2. The abandonment by the local church of apologetics as a major part of Christian discipline. Many Christians are unwilling or unable to defend their faith because they haven’t been systematically taught the Truth and how to defend it. The concept of absolute Truth has been under assault since mid-19th century German liberalism began to creep into the theological thinking of many Americans. Truth must be defined before it can be defended and most churches spend little or no time teaching people how to do either. Focus on the Families “Truth Project” and other Para-church attempts at promoting apologetics are good but for the most part, they are not translating into the teaching of the local church.
3. The combination of traditional religious teaching with the new age concept of spirituality. The “Oprahization” of the church is well under way with millions now tuning in (through TV and the web) and turning on to Oprah Winfrey’s brand of homogenized religion. Being spiritual, as defined by Eckhart Tolle and others means simply believing in a nebulous force that might work well for Star Wars Jedi but in the real world, is nothing but new age nonsense.
4. The negative portrayal of Christianity in the culture by the media and the proliferation of scandals within the Church. The media loves a good church scandal and unfortunately, church leaders in America have been more than happy to provide the media with plenty of material. From pedophiles masquerading as Catholic Priests to Protestant ministers who can’t keep their wedding vows, people are losing faith in their religious leaders. The media piles on with negative portrayals of organized religion portraying the extremist Fred Phelps as an accurate picture of typical evangelicalism.
5. A lack of emphasis in the Church on evangelism as defined by personal conversion and a reluctance by the Church to embrace new methods of communication for the purpose of evangelism. Many churches have stopped trying to evangelize and many of those that are still trying are using methods that were effective in 1955 but fail to connect in the 21st century. The Emerging Church movement tends to blur the lines between believing and belonging, therefore minimizing the need for personal conversion. Many churches that still believe people are lost and need to be saved are still preaching the truth but the message is getting lost in all the cultural background noise. The Church has to find a way to cut through the static and reach people through the building of relationships.
The Church in America must effectively deal with these challenges if we are going to reverse the decline of Christianity in the next generation.