“In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” That was the headline of an October 2019 Pew Research Center article. One guaranteed to discourage every pastor and every Christian in America.
It is also entirely misleading.
Just to set the record straight: More than one-third of American Christians consider themselves “strongly affiliated” with their faith. Yes, that’s right: one third. In today’s world, where going to church is no longer the thing to do on Sundays, that is a huge percentage. And the only “decline” is among those who were never that strongly affiliated to begin with.
New York Times writer Ross Douthat was quick to publish a data-driven article refuting Pew’s doomsday title. My friend David French at The Dispatch also chimed in with a great summary of Douthat’s article. As a social scientist and as a person of faith, I want readers to know the “real deal,” so here’s a quick recap:
First, Douthat found when one includes analysis of other religious polls like Gallup and the General Social Survey, the ratio of more faithfully committed Christians (those “strongly affiliated”) since 1990 has not declined at all: it has remained essentially the same. The drop in those who identify as Christians is primarily made up of those that were not that committed (those “weakly affiliated”) in the first place.
Second, French mentioned another analysis of a 2014 Pew religious landscape survey that had some important news for evangelicals. Specifically, that evangelicals were far more likely retain their members than more mainline/traditional denominations – and more likely to attract those who were leaving those traditions.
Third, a look at a Gallup report that came out the same day as Douthat’s article revealed even more good news about younger generations. Interestingly, as people age, church attendance increases at somewhat similar rates for all generations, including Millennials. The poll showed higher church attendance in 2019 for Millennials as they entered their thirties, much like generation X did when they entered their late twenties. The poll also found “Nones” (no religious identity) decreased with age–and again, the downward trend was similar across generations.
Finally, I can’t help pointing out that this dire headline tactic once again demonstrates how important it is to avoid getting discouraged by click-bait news headlines. Especially since even the most well-intentioned journalists often just don’t understand things of faith, and will often (and often unintentionally) seize on and write about the supposed surface bad news without looking deeper.
I want to encourage us all to read beyond the headlines and look at the data. This is so similar to what Tally Whitehead and I found when we were writing The Good News About Marriage. Repeatedly, headlines overstressed actual divorce statistics, emphasized the bad news and neglected any positive news. For too long, pastors and regular churchgoers who care about marriage and things of faith have not seen the great news out there because we haven’t looked beyond the headlines.
David French ended his article by pointing out that America is less a “post-Christian nation” and more a “religiously divided nation”; divided between faithful believers and secularists. I agree. The one thing that all the data proves is that religious pretense is falling away, and people who don’t really have a personal faith are far more likely to say so. When asked “What is your religion?” on a survey, they now don’t call themselves a Christian just because they live in America. They are more likely to check “none.”
It is a sorrow that there are so many in that category. And it is hard on churches and Christians who live in the areas where the “nones” are concentrated (such as the Pacific Northwest). But it is probably just reflecting the truth that has been there all along. (And given the latest Gallup report, we can pray for and trust that the Nones may end up at church as they age. We can also keep inviting them. The 2014 Pew religious landscape survey showed that more than one-third of adults who were not regular religious service attenders still went to one or more church services at some point during that year.)
All this data doesn’t prove the decline of the church — just the opposite. For all its faults, the church of Jesus Christ is working to stand faithful in a climate and a culture that has become far more honest about its lack of belief – and far more inclined to impose costs on those who don’t toe the secular line. I’m proud of our pastors and all followers of Jesus for continuing to share God’s love in this climate every day. The truth behind that headline — which might read “In U.S., Strength of Personal Christian Faith Continues to Shine” — is the one that every American Christian needs to know.
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Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her latest book, Find Peace: A 40-day Devotional Journey For Moms, focuses on discovering biblical direction to become a woman of serenity and delight in all seasons – and have impact for generations to come.
Visit www.shaunti.com for more.