Is Christianity Declining in America?
Christianity is declining rapidly in America. Over approximately the past decade, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian has gone down 12% – from 75% to 63%.
According to Pew Research, Christians continue to make up a majority of the U.S. populace, but their share of the adult population is 12 points lower in 2021 than it was in 2011.
They go on to say, “The religiously unaffiliated share of the public is 6 percentage points higher than it was five years ago and 10 points higher than a decade ago.”
What’s even more troubling is that the American population of Christians is declining more and more with each generation.
Pew reported in 2019 that:
- 84% of those born between 1928 and 1945 (Silent Generation) describe themselves as Christians.
- 76% of those born between 1946 and 1964 (Baby Boomers) describe themselves as Christians.
- 67% of those born between 1965 and 1980 (Generation X) describe themselves as Christians.
- 49% of those born between 1981 and 1996 (Millennials) describe themselves as Christians.
Do you see a trend? It’s no exaggeration to say that Christianity is slowly dying in America.
Based on the statistics above, what do you think the next generation’s (Gen Z’s) response to Christianity will look like? I certainly hope the numbers are higher, but it’s not trending that way currently. And if the media and politics are any indication of the projection of the next generation, then Christianity has some significant ground to cover.
To use the “The American Church as 100 People” graphic about modern Christianity on your own site, copy and paste the code below:
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American Christianity Statistics:
Highlights on Christianity in America:
- Only 29% of Christians go to church weekly (source: Barna)
- Only 14% of Christians read their Bible daily (source: Barna)
- Only 36% of Christians feel like their church has had a positive impact on their community (source: Barna)
- 87% of Christians do not tithe (source: Christian Post)
- 72% of Christians display characteristics consistent with that of a Pharisee (source: Barna)
- 64% of those who grow up in a church leave the church before age 30 (source: Barna)
- 69% have prayed to God in the last 7 days, 31% haven’t (United States only; source: Barna)
- 38% go to multiple churches, 62% go to only one (United States only; source: Barna)
- 45% are men, 55% are women (United States only; source: Pew)
- 17% are 18-29, 33% are 30-49, 29% are 50-64, 20% are 65+ (United States only; source: Pew)
- 66% are Protestant, 30% are Catholic, 4% are Other (Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, etc.) (United States only; source: Pew)
- 70% attend a church with more than 250 each week, 30% attend a church with less than 250 each week (United States only; source: Lifeway)
- According to pastors, 28% of the congregation need emotional well-being, 35% need spiritual well-being, 27% need relational well-being, 3% need physical well-being, 1% need vocational well-being, 1% need financial well-being, 4% are not sure (United States only; source: Barna)
- 34% struggle significantly with anxiety or depression, 66% do not (United States only; source: Barna)
Is Christianity the Largest Religion?
Christianity is by far the largest religion in the world – and it has been for centuries. Christians worldwide make up about 31% of the global population.
According to Pew Research in 2015, “Christians remained the largest religious group in the world in 2015, making up nearly a third (31%) of Earth’s 7.3 billion people.” In America, the numbers are much higher: 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion.
And the massive popularity of Christianity isn’t new, either. As a movement, it exploded in a very short amount of time (within just a few hundred years) and has maintained its growth ever since the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
Something grabbed the attention of the world. Something made people turn their heads, soften their hearts, and sacrifice their pride and comfort for a life of selfless love and sacrifice. That’s a nearly impossible task, yet it’s exactly the effect that the movement of Christ had on the world. And for thousands of years, it has captivated the hearts of billions of people.
But somewhere along the way, something changed.
Somewhere, or maybe at a million little “somewheres” along the way, compromises were made, comfort was embraced, and opinions were elevated. Worst of all, Jesus was put in the passenger seat. The unconscious choice was made to have Him come along for the ride for the sake of comfort while Christians took control of the wheel. Of course, we could never do away with Jesus, so we kept Him just close enough to make us feel better. And Christians literally went from “Christ-followers” to Christ-drivers. They drove their opinions, agenda, and comfort zone to the forefront of the Church. Pride took over, and being right became the priority.
So the Church split, then split again, then again, again, and again. Before we knew it, there were thousands of variations of Christianity – each one based on disagreements. Christianity became a jigsaw puzzle of Jesus, and somewhere in the broken pieces, the picture of who Jesus truly is got skewed beyond recognition. And Christianity – at least in the Western world – drifted. It became stagnant.
Fast forward a bit to Christianity in the modern era.
There, in the middle of the world stage, shrouded in influence and affluence, sat the Christian Church. But it was fragmented and broken and unstable and completely blinded by pride and fear. I believe that’s when the mindset of “do more good than bad so you can go to a good place when you die” took root and spread like wildfire among a fear-ridden yet influential people.
This is where we find ourselves today. Too many of us are recovering from centuries of pain and abuse and fear that has run rampant within Christian churches – and it all stemmed from the “do good” mindset that was allowed to take root long ago.
This isn’t true of the world population of Christians, but it’s certainly true of Western cultures. If you’ve paid attention to mainstream media in the last decade, it’s probably no surprise that Christianity is on the decline in both Europe and America.
In Europe, which was the center of initial Christian Church growth, the once dominant religion of Christianity is projected to decline over the next few decades [source] similarly to how Christianity is pacing to decline in America.
But that isn’t the case everywhere in the world.
Is Christianity Growing Worldwide?
Worldwide, the population growth of Christianity is expected to grow about the same as the general population – between 0.5% and 1% growth. In other words, despite the decline of Christianity in America and Europe, Christianity as a whole is projected to grow worldwide over the next few decades.
So where is Christianity growing then if not in Western cultures?
Well, in regions like Africa and Asia, Christianity is booming. In fact, Pew Research says, “[By 2050] sub-Saharan Africa is expected to become the region with the largest number of Christians – by a wide margin. Sub-Saharan Africa’s share of the global Christian population is forecast to rise from 24% in 2010 to 38% in 2050.”
So what’s happening in Africa and Asia that isn’t happening in America and Europe? Why is there a fire spreading there while it seems as if the fire for Jesus – and the purpose and fulfilment that comes with it – in America seems to be slowly dying?
One of the best quotes I’ve ever heard came from an American interviewer who asked an African pastor why he thought miracles were happening in Africa and not in America. The pastor said, “In America, you study your God. In Africa, we worship ours.”
That pretty much sums it up. We – as Christians in Western culture – got to the place where God became a tool for us to use to get to Heaven. We decided we could do more good than bad so we could go to a good place when we die. God became a means to an end, and the purpose of life became lost completely. Instead, we traded deep meaning and purpose for “doing good” and “winning”. And the negative impact of that mindset shift has rippled throughout history.
So is Christianity the problem? I don’t think it’s fair to scrap the entire religion just yet, but I think it’s fair to assess the damage done and reset our thinking.
A Brief History of the Christian Church
The name “Christian” actually used to be a badge of honor among the early followers of Jesus.
The Bible tells us in Acts 11:26 that, “the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” There are two other references to the term “Christian” in the Bible: One is a king saying he wasn’t going to become a Christian (Acts 26:28) and the other is Peter saying that suffering as a Christian is honorable (1 Peter 4:16). The original Greek word used in Acts for “Christian” means “follower of the Messiah”. So this was most likely a name given to the early Christ-followers by the Gentile population (the “non-Christ-followers”) as a way of labeling people who followed Jesus.
Some commentators have suggested that this name was given to them as a form of ridicule, but regardless, it was clear that the community around them noticed something different about them – so much so that they felt the need to label them with the name of the Messiah (which is what “Christ” means).
When you think about it, whether the title was originally meant as mockery or not, being given the name “Christian” truly was an honor. It meant that people saw Christ in them, which is the ultimate goal.
From that point on, the term Christian identified people who walked and lived in the same manner as Jesus walked. They spoke as He spoke, acted as He acted, and loved as He loved. They also preached the same message of hope that Jesus preached, and people embraced the message and the power that naturally came with the Christ-like character of the disciples.
The important point here is that the disciples didn’t label themselves. The community around them labeled them because they were living with the same character as Jesus and therefore stood out as His followers.
But let’s fast-forward to the 4th century AD. By this time, powerful Roman leaders and citizens were beginning to defend the Christian cause. Beginning with Emperor Constantine I’s rise to power and conversion to Christianity, Christians began to feel what it was like to be the ones in power. With that power, of course, came the love of being right and the ability to wield the violent side of human nature against anyone who disagreed. And it didn’t take long for Christians to become a source of fear.
Christianity continued to grow in power in Europe until, in the 11th century, Christians in Western Europe were called by Pope Urban II to rise up and fight to reclaim Jerusalem from Muslim control. This began a series of bloody massacres and wars against both Jews and Muslims at the hands of Christians in what is now known as the Crusades. Regardless of your stance on the Crusades, I think it’s reasonable to agree that the violence and hatred shown during those centuries were a stain on the name and what it meant to be a “Christian.”
From that point until now, Christianity has been the religion of the powerful, and over the centuries, power has rarely looked good on Christians. Just like in ancient Israel whenever prosperity and power came, pride and downfall soon followed.
That, my friend, is where we find ourselves right now in America.
What’s causing the decline of Christianity in America?
Research has shown that society as a whole doesn’t have a great impression of Christians, and it’s that negative impression that has led to the gradual decline of Christianity in America.
Barna conducted a study a number of years back on the attitudes and actions of Christians in America to determine if they were truly like Jesus or more like religious Pharisees being self-righteous in nature and judgmental of others.
What they found was that over 70% of Christians were categorized – based on their attitudes and actions – as being more like self-righteous Pharisees than they were like Jesus.
Overall, the culture around us agrees – people generally don’t view Christians in a good light in America.
An article citing a Barna study said that one out of every four people – and one out of every three unchurched adults – said they could not think of even one positive contribution made by Christianity in recent years.
When asked what they thought were any negative contributions of Christianity, one out of five Americans mentioned “violence or hatred incited in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Another study found that only 9% of non-Christians said that their perception of Evangelicals was positive or slightly positive. The other more than 90% said their perception of Evangelicals was either neutral, somewhat negative, or very negative. Nearly half of all non-Christians said their perception of Evangelicals was somewhat negative or very negative.
Evangelicals, on the other hand, think they’re pretty great. 77% of them said their perception of Evangelicals was either slightly positive or very positive. So we think we’re awesome, but no one else does.
When asked to describe their perception of Evangelicals in general, some of the most common words used by non-Christians were:
- Puritanical (strict)
Meanwhile, Evangelicals saw themselves as:
Do you see a disconnect here? Christians – particularly Evangelical Christians – are living in a fantasy world. We’ve convinced ourselves through the lights and smoke machines and motivational sermons that we are what’s right in the world. The reality, however, is much, much different.
Instead of impacting the world for good, we mostly talk about how the world should change. Instead of teaching our kids about love, we mostly teach them how to stay out of trouble with God and with other people. Instead of being kind and showing compassion, we jump at every opportunity to be right. And the world has taken notice.
Here’s the problem:
If I were to ask you to picture in your mind the meaning of the word “church”, most people would envision a building with a steeple on the top and nice white pillars out front. And therein lies the problem.
Church isn’t supposed to be something we do; it’s supposed to be who we are.
We say things like “go to church” and “having church”, but using the term church in that way only reinforces the idea that church is nothing more than a place we go.
The reality is, church has become an exclusive and elitist club intended to signal virtue. We’re proud to be “church-goers”. What we think that says about us is that we’re not broken like the rest of the world. We go to church. We’re not like everyone else. We’re better. That’s the story that going to church tells us about ourselves.
Meanwhile, there’s a world of people who have heard about Jesus but sure haven’t seen him. After all, it was Jesus who said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) The question is, since Evangelicals aren’t known for their love and are better known for their hate, what do we think that’s communicating to them about Jesus? If they see that his “disciples” – his Church – acts this way, why would they be interested in meeting Jesus?
So, why is Christianity declining? The most obvious problem with Christianity today is marketing. Let me explain…
Christian Reputations: the Main Reason Christianity is Declining in America
We all market ourselves to the world around us every single day with the way we dress, talk, and otherwise present ourselves. And that isn’t a bad thing. It’s part of communal life with other human beings.
But here’s the key:
Marketing can be used to advance goodness or to restrain goodness.
Unfortunately, because of the picture being portrayed by the overall lifeless and judgmental nature of Christians in America, the “marketing” for Christianity in recent history hasn’t been great.
Considering where we’re at today as a society, and where Christianity has gone, we desperately need Christians to communicate God’s love in a way that captures the world’s attention. After all, that’s what Jesus did to spark the world’s most influential movement of all time.
But that isn’t how the world views Christians today. Instead, the general public sees Christians as hypocritical, judgmental, boring, and out of touch with reality. Both large-scale surveys and anecdotal evidence confirm that stigma.
Christians don’t have to seek the approval of the rest of the world, but they are obligated to represent Jesus in a way that honors him.
At the very least, the world should be interested in what they see from Christians. But instead, the world sees them as disconnected, boring, and hypocritical people.
But how can that be changed?
It starts with embracing the next generations. Being open and willing to discuss new and uncomfortable topics is an absolute must. Being technologically and social media savvy is no longer optional; those are now the starting points to gaining influence.
Like it or not, the “hipster” churches are glimpses of what the Church will look like in the next generation. So it’s time to stop thinking of the preferences of the younger generation as a fad that will pass. Instead, start adapting, because the “kids these days” will be creating the American church culture as a whole much sooner than we realize.
Most importantly, the spread of Christianity – and the positive transformation Christians want to see in the world – only effectively happens when it first happens in individual Christians. In other words, the way to better “market” Christianity is to start with actual transformation in the hearts of the people who claim to believe it before it can spread anywhere else.
Here’s what I mean…
Once there was an old man who looked back on his life and said this:
When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. However, I soon realized it was very difficult to change the world, so I decided to change my nation. After a while, I realized it was also very difficult to change my nation, so I decided to devote my time to changing my city. However, over time I realized that changing my city was also very difficult. So as an older man, I decided to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself. If long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our city. Our city’s impact could have changed the nation, and I could indeed have changed the world.
The reality is, we’re all building a brand, whether we realize it or not, and Christians are building one, too. Right now, that brand isn’t doing great. But we have the opportunity and responsibility to radically change a broken system.
That starts on a personal level by opening our own hearts to the fact that somewhere along the way, we all got lost. And no matter who we are, we’re no better than the person we disagree with most. Once we humbly address that in ourselves, then we get to tell our stories in a way that captures attention, resonates with others, and positively impacts lives. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want?
We have to get back to being the Church Jesus meant for us to be. That Church is the hope of the world. But right now we’re missing the mark. Therefore, it’s time to change. And the world desperately needs us to change quickly.