“America Is Getting Less Christian, Less Religious,” wrote the Huffington Post. “Survey Fail — Christianity Isn’t Dying,” says Ed Stetzer for USA Today.
Um … if I remember the law of non-contradiction correctly, these headlines can’t both be true.
So which is it? Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that those reporting Christian affiliation grew by 2 million people since 2007. Thus, the “Christianity Isn’t Dying” headline.
The bad news: The overall percentage of Christians in the U.S. fell by 8 percent. If Christianity grows a little and the population grows a lot, that means Christianity is shrinking. Thus, the “Less Christian” headline.
This new survey is a wake-up call. I encourage you to read it at pewforum.org. But for the fast-track version, three things stand out to me:
The Rising Generation Isn’t on Board
In the new Pew survey, Millennials (those born from 1981-1996) saw the largest decrease in religious affiliation. Over one-third are “nones,” as in “What’s your religious affiliation?” “None.” The figure has risen 1 percent a year for seven years. We wonder why: Do they find religious commitment too burdensome? Are they commitment-phobic? Does it even matter to them?
Leading Christian researcher Ed Stetzer says it might just be that less-committed believers are finally showing their true colors. “Christianity isn’t collapsing, it’s being clarified,” he says. When a person is low-commitment to begin with, it’s easy to slide from “nominal” to “none,” Stetzer thinks. It’s not that they’ve fallen out of love; it’s that they weren’t really in love in the first place.
Americans Would Rather Believe Nothing Than Very Little
Catholic and Mainline denominations are losing members by droves. No doubt many churches in these denominations are holding the line, but the overall trend is clear: Why go to a church that asks you to believe very little when you can stay home and believe nothing?
Evangelicalism, on the other hand, is growing slightly. We asked Mark Mittelberg for his comments on this. Mittelberg is a Summit faculty member who, along with his ministry partner Lee Strobel, has shared the Gospel with millions. He replied, “This study shows what a lot of us have been saying for a long time: Liberal, compromising Christianity is slowly going extinct, while vibrant, biblical faith is on the rise.”
Even one in five fragile-faithed Millennials reports an Evangelical faith. This is good, but not great, news. A cohort of Millennials holding their ground isn’t exactly a hipster revival. In an increasingly hostile culture, how long will they hold on?
Surveys Only Reveal a Partial Truth
The Pew study is asking the wrong questions. Christianity isn’t about choosing a religious affiliation from a list, like selecting pizza toppings. The culture is not about statistics. It’s about people longing for meaning, confused about what’s true, and in desperate need of discipleship from those who know and live the truth.
If it’s a culture war, we’re losing. More and more people are believing less and less. But if it’s about culture care instead of culture war, we don’t have to be elite warriors to secure victory. We can be unsung heroes who kneel in prayer to fight for our kids’ hearts, who share our faith with our neighbors, and whose character earns us a hearing around the water cooler.
May I make a suggestion? Summit Ministries recently released Grow Together, a film, study guide, and book focused on uniting the generations. Get a copy for your church at www.growtogether.org.
Grow Together shows how to reverse the trend of people walking away from the faith by giving simple counsel on befriending and mentoring young adults. Young people with an adult friend in church are more than twice as likely to stay. This is an easy win. We can start with a cup of coffee, a smile, and a listening ear.
The Pew study shows Summit’s work to be more vital than ever. Mittelberg says, “There’s much more to be done, especially among young people who so desperately need to know what we believe and why. That’s why I thank God for what he’s doing through Summit Ministries to prepare and build into the next generation of Christian leaders.”
God is at work. Your prayers and support are making it possible for us to send a whole new wave of fired-up young believers into a failing culture. Thank you.