The headlines about the Pew Report, including at this blog, say that Christianity is declining in America. But if you look closer, says Christianity Today’s Ed Stetzer, the data shows that the decline is in “nominal Christians”–those in name only–who are becoming open about their unbelief and calling themselves “Nones.” The number of “convictional” Christians–those who really believe all that stuff–is holding steady. See his analysis of the data after the jump.
There was a time when church membership was a cultural advantage. Belonging to a church was good for business and a sign of fitting into the community. So church membership rolls were filled with “pewsitters” or “Christmas/Easter” members. Today, belonging to a church can be a cultural disadvantage. So there is no reason for nominal Christians to bother with it.
This exit of the nominals can be a good thing, on one level, but I want to make two important caveats.
Without nominal Christians cluttering up membership rolls, the members who remain–and are willing to resist the cultural pressures not to–are going to be those who take their Christianity seriously. This should strengthen churches and make them more faithful and effective.
On the other hand, those nominal Christians who just sit in the pews for social reasons were always in jeopardy of hearing the Gospel, of having the Word of God break through to them. So it has been good to have them in church, if only at Christmas and Easter.
I don’t expect other evangelicals to go with me on this point, but from the perspective of Lutheranism and other sacramental theologies, the question about a nominal Christian is whether he or she is baptized. If so, Christ has a claim on that person. If the name in “name only” is the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit placed on that person in baptism, there is a different status.
“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” says out Lord, “but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Personal faith is indeed necessary. Baptism, through the Word of God, creates that faith, but it’s possible for someone to stop believing. He or she has fallen away. Church attendance or identifying oneself as a Christian may be remnants of that Baptism. The task for the church is to bring these nominal but former Christians back to Christ.So while we can expect a certain purifying of the church, once the nominals leave, we should still want the nominals there. Maybe a more sharply defined and revitalized church will attract their attention and give them something real to come back to.
As I’ve said before, Christianity is not dying; nominal Christianity is.
Today, Pew Research Center released a report drawing a variety of headlines—everything from “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion” to “Pew: Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles in America.”
So what are we supposed to think of Christianity in America?
The nominals are becoming the nones, and the convictional are remaining committed.
The big trends are clear, the nominals are becoming the nones, yet the convictional are remaining committed.
In other words, Americans whose Christianity was nominal—in name only—are casting aside the name. They are now aligning publicly with what they’ve actually not believed all along.
The percentage of convictional Christians remains rather steady, but because the nominal Christians now are unaffiliated the overall percentage of self-identified Christians is decline. This overall decline is what Pew shows—and I expect it to accelerate.
As I have said before, not one serious researcher thinks Christianity in America is dying. What we see from Pew is not the death-knell of Christianity, but another indication that Christianity in America is being refined.
As such, let me share three takeaways from the data.
HT: Pastor Jim Rademaker