Why the “Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christian” Isn’t Our Problem

Why the “Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christian” Isn’t Our Problem May 14, 2015

coffee.001The New York Times reported earlier this week on the sharp decline in the number of Americans who self-identify as Christians. I’m guessing Christians will likely blame this on shifting cultural values or some other outside phenomenon. As for my take, I think the church should probably be able to manage faithfulness with or without cultural approval. If you want my full take, read Shrink. The book gives my interpretation of what’s going on, and why it’s really not a reason to mope around. Here’s the most succinct way I can say it:

The wholesale acceptance of the cultural value of the bigger, better, higher, stronger, and faster has had a profound impact on the Western church. Perhaps the most powerful reason the church is in decline in North America right now is that the church’s way of being in the world does not represent a genuine alternative to the way of the dominant culture. When the church becomes an agent of the culture, indistinguishable in most ways from society at large, people cease to see the value in belonging, and they opt out. For the most part, the Church looks exactly the same as the culture… just not as cool.

Brunch… now there’s a growing cultural phenomenon. Maybe the church should provide brunch…

You wanna grow your church? All you have to do is affirm people in the deeply held beliefs they already have. Help them tick that pesky religion box and they’ll reward you with their presence every week. Throw in some sentimentality and they’ll tithe.

This strategy, however, has a short shelf life, which is why large churches have such a wide back door. Why get up and go to church on Sunday when I can spend the morning at the gym, or reading the paper at Starbucks? If I can catch Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday and get the same gist, why should I come see your dog-and-pony show?

As Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying: “Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bullshit.” Success has become the lord in our society; a god to which the church genuflects dutifully. People already have “American” descriptor, why call themselves “Christian?” It has become redundant.

Here’s an excerpt from the NYTimes article:

The Christian share of adults in the United States has declined sharply since 2007, affecting nearly all major Christian traditions and denominations, and crossing age, race and region, according to an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center.

Seventy-one percent of American adults were Christian in 2014, the lowest estimate from any sizable survey to date, and a decline of 5 million adults and 8 percentage points since a similar Pew survey in 2007.

The Christian share of the population has been declining for decades, but the pace rivals or even exceeds that of the country’s most significant demographic trends, like the growing Hispanic population. It is not confined to the coasts, the cities, the young or the other liberal and more secular groups where one might expect it, either.

“The decline is taking place in every region of the country, including the Bible Belt,” said Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research at the Pew Research Center and the lead editor of the report.

The decline has been propelled in part by generational change, as relatively non-Christian millennials reach adulthood and gradually replace the oldest and most Christian adults. But it is also because many former Christians, of all ages, have joined the rapidly growing ranks of the religiously unaffiliated or “nones”: a broad category including atheists, agnostics and those who adhere to “nothing in particular.”

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  • histrogeek

    Thank you for this reminder. I have been very mopey about the Pew report and I’m pleased to see a genuine faithful response to it.

  • lorasinger

    Fundamentalists act and talk like mental patients and then declare that they have the only truth, that they speak for all of Christianity, and that is what they want everyone to be like. In fact, it’s almost like a contest among them to see who can talk crazier. That scares more rational people and disgusts them. If that’s what a “Christian” is, then nobody wants a part of it.
    I think that even though the GOP chose to have the Christian fundamentalists as their voting base and are continually reaching out to them with this behaviour, even evangelicals are moving away from their desperate bid for votes.

    • Rust Cohle

      like mental patients

      You’re closer to the truth than you can imagine.

      “Religion is organized schizophrenia.” ~Dr. Robert Sapolsky

      Dr. Robert Sapolsky The Biological Origins of Religion (Bio 150/250, Spring 2002)

  • Rust Cohle

    Success has become the lord in our society…

    And why not? “Pursuit of Happiness is in America’s founding document, and endorsed by the only book in the Bible worth reading.

    Ecclesiastes 3:12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live.

    Not that mystical prudes will be happy with people pursuing happiness…

    Ecclesiastes’ Epicurean Ceterum censeo that nought is good for man but eating, and drinking, and pleasure (8:15, 2:24, 5:18, cf. 3:12) is condemned by Jesus (Luke 12:20) in a section which contains several allusions to the Book of Ecclesiastes (cf. Luke 12:18, and Eccl. 2:4; Luke 12:20b and Eccl 2:18b, and above all, Luke 12:27 = Matt. 6:29 (Solomon in all his glory.)[…]

    Paul Haupt (1905) The Book of Ecclesiastes: A New Metrical Translation (with an introduction and explanatory notes). Baltimore: John Hopkins Press. p.6. archive.org/stream/bookofecclesiast00balt

    • lorasinger

      We don’t know for a fact what he condemned or didn’t. He was born and died a Jew and would have acted appropriately for his situation and times as a Jew. That is the only thing we can safely say. He wasn’t a Christian because there were none in his time. What we call “Jewish Christians” were practicing Jews who believed he was the fully human messiah of Jewish prophecy. The NT is written by anonymous authors, followers of Paul, 30-80 years after the fact. Paul himself never met Jesus nor studied under the apostles.

      • Rust Cohle

        We know, for a fact, that the Jesus character, whether real or fictional, as recorded in the Gospels, condemned the Epicurean/Saduccean world view (expressed in Ecclesiastes), that there was no afterlife and this life is the only life worth anything.

        It goes deeper too. The Jesus character and other writers expressed direct opposition to Epicureanism, e.g.

        EPICUREANISM: We have been born once and cannot be born a second time; for all eternity we shall no longer exist. (Vatican Sayings #14 http://www.epicurus.info/etexts/VS.html )

        CHRISTIANITY: For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God. (1 Peter 1:23)

        For further study on Christianity and Epicureanism, see: St. Paul & Epicurus (University of Minnesota, 1954 http://www.epicurus.info/etexts/stpaulandepicurus.html )

        Sure, half the NT is a blatant fraud, I agree.

        “There were a lot of people in the ancient world who thought that lying could serve a greater good,” says Ehrman, an expert on ancient biblical manuscripts.

        Half of New Testament forged, Bible scholar says

        • lorasinger

          Not so unique when you consider that in terms of Jewish belief, if you lived a righteous life and followed the commandments, after death, you would be BORN AGAIN into eternal life. If not, you either remained dead or went to sheoul for purification.
          The Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife. The Pharisees and Essenes did. Oddly enough, the Sadducees acted as the priests in the temples, although the law and religion was actually in the hands of the Pharisees.
          Christians today, since about the 70’s have the catchy “born again” tied into the baptism and “personal relationship with Jesus” thing. In Jesus time, according to Josephus, baptism was actually a ceremonial bath that signified cleansing of the body after the mind was already pure. It had no sin lifting properties and could be done even several times a day.

  • Alan Christensen

    I have to read more Stanley Hauerwas.