Last time we met up, we were talking about how Ken Ham’s little evangelism project, Ark Encounter, is already faltering. I thought it was hilarious that this news comes out now, amid a Gallup poll showing that belief in Creationism is at its lowest point since Gallup began asking that question of Americans. But that’s not the only bad news for Christians (and fundagelicals particularly). There are a lot of other indications that their losses since 2015 are only getting worse–becoming part of a general ongoing crisis that’s been in full swing for years and may not even have peaked yet. So let’s catch up on the news!
The Lay of the Land(scape).
The 2014 Religious Landscape Study, published in May of 2015, was a big honkin’ deal for Christians. It was one of the very first formal indications that their religion was in serious trouble.
Up until that survey, Christians could pretend that everything was totally fine and that any seeming dips in their membership numbers were just glitches or temporary problems. And a lot of them did exactly that. Our observations meant nothing to them; they always had their own skewed perceptions and pockets of intermittent growth to argue with.
The conventional wisdom, even back when I was Christian, was always that sure, a lot of Christians disengaged from religion during their college years–but they totally always came back when they got married and had kids. But that turned out not to be true anymore, and the Religious Landscape Survey was such a potent proof of that fact that all but the most delusional Christians had to come squarely face to face with their new normal.
At that point, a lot of Christians finally pulled their heads out of the sand to admit that not only was their religion absolutely hemorrhaging believers, but it was also completely failing to attract or breed enough new believers to offset all the people leaving their churches and groups. Further, young people (loosely defined as either teen-to-college-aged or teen-to-30, but this isn’t set in stone) were the group most likely to leave Christianity and never return. The younger a person is at this point, the less of a chance they have of being Christian–and even if they are Christian, the chances are very good that they’re either on their way out of the religion or are at least starting to lose patience with their tribe over its overly-political posturing and general hatefulness.
That wasn’t the only really bad news for Christians, though.
The study also revealed that the only group really growing at all in America was that of the so-called Nones, who are unaffiliated folks who’d say they are “none of the above” with regard to religion. Formal scarlet-letter-A atheism itself was also growing very quickly as a worldview, damned near doubling between 2007 and 2014–and sure, an increase to 3.1% of respondents from 1.6% isn’t like huge, but it was still significant.
In every single way, the Religious Landscape Study was a complete, unmitigated disaster for Christians.
It was so much worse than I’d ever imagined, even me, even after looking at the religion’s adherents as long as I have–so much worse, so much faster, and so much more completely.
The report didn’t contain a single optimistic element for Christianity or even try to spin that bad news into something–anything–that fundagelicals could feel good about, as Barna Group and other fundagelical-dominated survey groups do all the time when they have bad news to report.
On the plus side, it pretty much put paid to Christians’ attempts to hand-wave away our observations that their religion wasn’t doin’ too well.
Rearranging the Deck Chairs.
So as you can imagine, Christian leaders swung into overdrive as they began trying to address this shocking new development–well, shocking to them, at least. Anybody with eyes had been seeing for ages that Christianity was starting to have major issues. I’ve been calling that one repeatedly ever since this blog began, for cryin’ out loud.
Though some Christians still don’t believe that their religion is heading downhill fast, generally speaking I don’t think many of them–particularly not ones in leadership positions anywhere–deny that fact. After the Pew report came out, we had to deal with their initial period of sniffing disdainfully that they were actually totally happy about all those Christians-in-name-only leaving the religion, since obviously those were the ones letting the door hit ’em on the ass, while all the perfect wonderful TRUE CHRISTIANS™ were still hanging in there.
And then, when it became glaringly clear that actually a lot of very earnest and fervent Christians were pulling away from the religion for what most folks would consider extremely compelling reasons, that’s when Christian leaders in particular began hunkering down to try to figure out how to stop the flood.
But really, they might as well actually try to stop a literal flood of water coming over a stormwall by yelling at it, for all the good they’re doing.
A Lot of Really Bad Signs.
Since the Religious Landscape Study, some new figures are trickling in to indicate really bad news for Christians–all just over the last two years. I’m sorry for the following wall-o-bullet-points, but this is all really good stuff so I hope you’ll bear with me:
- A recent Gallup Poll about Creationism indicates that a smaller percentage of Americans than ever buy into Creationist beliefs. The number of Americans who hold the demonstrably correct belief, that humans evolved on their own without any kind of help from superhuman or supernatural entities, is also drifting upward. Now, people who try to split the difference by saying that okay, humans developed over time but a god maybe guided the process, is raising even more sharply than the drop in hardcore Creationists. So it’s not entirely good news, though it seems like a lot of religious people stop there on their journey toward reality. But it’s encouraging–for people who care about reality at least. For Christians, especially for fundagelicals who push Creationism, it’s disastrous. They’ve deliberately created a showdown between Creationism and reality, hinging membership in their tribe on belief in the Bible as a literally true and divine document. Oops.
- The year after Pew’s study was done, a 2015 study by Gallup confirmed that yes, there were indeed fewer people in America identifying as Christians. In 2016, Gallup printed a piece about “5 Key Findings on Religion in the US” that discovered that Christianity continued to spiral downward. Even self-reported church attendance is dropping from where it was a few years ago–though at the rate it’s settled into, about 36% of Americans, is a dizzyingly unreachable rate that even the most optimistic pastors can only dream about in their freest of dreams indeed.
- A few weeks ago, Gallup released another survey whose writeup they titled “Record Few Americans Believe Bible is Literal Word of God;” the percentage–24%–is shocking even to me. In just a few amazingly short years, Americans are moving toward a very urbane view of the Bible as just an old book of myths, one that nobody sensible would ever take literally. Meanwhile, just about as many Americans now view the Bible as just another bunch of myths as view it as the divinely breathed word of a living god.
- Pew Research Center itself released a study last year that found growing support for same-sex marriage. Now, people’s rights do not in any way depend on what a population supports and likes–but the fact that this support is growing indicates that fundagelicals’ culture wars are not going well at all. Not only is the number of supporters growing, but the number of people opposed to this right is steadily shrinking. And since the greatest percentage of supporters of this right are really young and the largest number of opposed folks are really old, that bodes even worse for the bigot-for-Jesus crowd.
- Another Pew Research study reveals that Americans are getting more tolerant of people of other religions–and of atheists too. I’m betting that fundagelicals ain’t happy about that either. (I had to laugh to see that evangelicals tend to rate themselves super-high on the “feeling thermometer” scale, but even they only rated themselves a 81/100! FYI, Jewish folks rated their own group a 91/100.) Interesting too: in the past 3 years, the number of respondents who say they actually even know an evangelical Christian in person has dropped 9%, from 70% of respondents to 61%. As the religion’s churn rate increases, fewer and fewer people actually know anybody willing to claim the title of evangelical.
- The Episcopal Church continues to slide into complete disaster. Attendance is down 3.4% and the denomination lost a net 43 parishes. This decline is steady and nothing the leaders of the church do seems to be able to reverse it. The denomination’s headquarters are now marked by “fear, mistrust and resentment.” I am Cas’ complete lack of surprise. Also not surprising: its leader is trying to hide behind “being human” to explain their pure dysfunction and to reassure his people that why gosh, every single church out there is like theirs. That, I want to tell this guy, is the WHOLE GODDAMNED PROBLEM WITH HIS GODDAMNED RELIGION. But there we are.
- The SBC, meanwhile, continues to suffer with its “baptism drought” for yet another year. Their 2016 numbers about 2015 indicate a drop of about 200,000 members despite there being more churches opening than closing. 2017 is still firming up 2016’s results, but you can trawl their initial reports if you want, like I did, if you want to see that their frantic efforts to reverse the tide are coming to absolutely nothing. They remind me of that old SNL skit about the bodybuilder trying to deadlift weights that are way too much for himself and ripping his own arms off (copied here in I think Spanish… and enjoy some vintage SNL of Arnold while you’re at it). All their efforts to strong-arm their decline into reversing will end with utter disaster and some announcer going “OOOOH, that’s a bad break for the big Russian!” But bless their cotton socks, they’re sure trying hard…. to maintain their toxic worldview and cultural practices and yet reverse the losses they’re experiencing specifically because of those two exact things.
- Salon relates a Pew Research study revealing that women are becoming one of Christianity’s fastest-eroding demographics. The growth rate of female “Nones” is now higher than that of male “Nones.” And feminism isn’t to blame, nor working women, since the slide began well after those cultural changes had become entrenched. Instead, Salon’s writer links the surge to Christian leaders’ campaign against women’s rights. Do not however hold your breath to wait for Christian leaders to make that connection.
- Barna Group isn’t my favorite survey group; they’re really fundagelical and for-profit, so they tend to really spin-doctor their results in a way that will make their audience of Christians happy. But even they couldn’t really spin-doctor their last year’s report on “The State of the Church.” They discovered that about half of Americans could now be identified as “post-Christian,” which means that they haven’t done Christian stuff like prayer or church attendance in the past six months.
- We’re still a bit ahead of Barna’s 2016 numbers (that’ll probably get released in the fall, probably), but a few months ago they released a report on the people “who love Jesus but not the church,” which is the new ultra-trendy and hipster way to be spiritual but not religious. Pastors seeing that report have got to just be having kittens. The upshot is that there’s a huge and growing percentage of people (ranging from 13% in the Northeast to 33% in the Deep South, which is the least surprising set of numbers they printed in this particular report) who have completely abandoned formal Christianity and are trying to create an eclectic belief system for themselves that speaks better to their personal values and cultural goals. We’re gonna talk more about this one later because there are some really interesting facets to it, but for now we’ll rest there.
I really hope it gives you the same feeling.
Even while these dire numbers and reports and surveys come out of the various survey houses, Christians continue to try to address their worsening losses.
Thom Schultz, director of a movie about church decline called When God Left the Building, has decided that what Christians need to do is figure out a new delivery model for their message–as if Westerners, Americans in particular, just haven’t heard about Christianity in the right way.
He even compared Christian culture to the Kodak company, which suffered stunning losses after digital photography became popular. I find this comparison more apt than even he would guess because the problem with Kodak was that people no longer wanted or needed the company’s products, just as is happening with Christianity, but Christians–like Kodak’s executives–think that there’s a magical way to market their product in a way that will create demand for it again.
I don’t see that happening, myself.
Even Thom Schultz in that interview mentions that one church his group studied collapsed before their very eyes as a result of infighting and “loss of mission” (that means they didn’t do enough evangelism, I think; it’s one of those intentionally-vague Christianese phrases)–but doesn’t wonder why people wouldn’t want to hang around a group that indulges in the kind of pettiness and dysfunction that he describes. Even if that church had been really gung-ho on whatever he thinks its mission was supposed to be, they’re putting the cart ahead of the horse here if they’re not concentrating on creating a good group first and only then seeking to recruit for it.
Another guy blames all the usual suspects for his religion’s decline: KIDS TODAY, “cultural Christianity’s” fade (that’s Christianese for a form of Christianity that isn’t the speaker’s and that is pursued only by fake Christians in Name Only, boo hiss), parents not properly indoctrinating their children, and the death of evangelism. Seriously. Though he doesn’t go further than laying blame in that post, I bet I can guess what he thinks will totally fix all the religion’s problems.
And yet another Christian thinks exactly the same way, though he shrouds that trite advice in as much Christianese as he can possibly muster. One would be excused for reading his post about “How to Resurrect a Dying or Plateaued Church” and come away going Yes, yes, but what on earth does this stuff even look like in the real world? There’s not even one really actionable suggestion here beyond advice about targeting specific groups to try to recruit from, but it’s buried in lots of that pointless you all need get more Jesus-y advice that plays so well with fundagelicals.*
A Capsizing Ship.
This is truly an amazing time to be alive. We’re watching the slow-motion collapse of a world religion, folks–and of a worldview. Obviously, there’ll still be some skirmishes to fight as Christians begin to get desperate to regain their lost dominance, and we’re already seeing those skirmishes escalate.
But these are nothing more than a mule kicking against the pricks. Demographics is working against them. They literally will not be able to draw young people back to their religion in the numbers they need to maintain their churches and fuel their culture wars. And older Christians, particularly the women who paid for the budgets of both those churches and culture wars and who did the bulk of the volunteer work to upkeep them, are drifting away from the religion in greater and greater numbers, hurt and angry over the increasingly-intense attacks on their rights.
Adding to the religion’s leaders’ stress, a growing number of Christians are opting out of the culture wars by creating their own ways to be Christian–ways that don’t look much at all like the version preferred by those leaders. Culture-war Christians’ biggest enemy isn’t atheism or even liberalism. It’s other Christians who oppose their overreach.
None of these drifting-away Christians, nor any of the growing crowds of non-Christians and ex-Christians surveying Christians’ new marketing attempts, are fooled by the attempts to relabel hatred, bigotry, corruption, exclusion, and cruelty as lovingkindness or compassion. Christian leaders can try all they want to evangelize, they can market all they want, they can advertise their hip-and-happenin’ crowd of cool cats who just wanna hang out with Jesus on Sunday and won’t y’all join them–and they can do their little advertising blitz saying so right on Madison Avenue if it makes ’em happy–but if they don’t offer a genuine refutation and rejection of those bad ideas and begin building their culture around consent and genuine compassion, they will just be throwing their advertising dollars down a well and wasting everyone’s time.
Then again, maybe that’s the point here.
Maybe it really is just about drawing out the end as long as possible.
By the time things go really pear-shaped and fall apart, the leaders of today will be hell and gone–along with all the money they could extract from those doomed churches. You’d think parishioners would demand better, but that’s how it rolls, I suppose.
COMING NEXT WEEK: Dang, we’ve got a lot going on! We did the most commonplace Christian miracles earlier, but next week we’ll be tackling the big-name ones and explaining how those really work. We’ll be looking at that crowd of “people who love Jesus but not the church,” too, and maybe we’ll be able to fit in a Semi-Drunken Review too. Whew! See you there! Be there or, well, you know, miss about 3000 of the best damn comments in the best damn blog community in the whole damn world, I reckon… <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3
* At the end of that post, he mentions that his church has performed 1300 baptisms but specifically doesn’t note how many of those baptisms were of non-Christians or even of adults, nor how many of those baptized people turned into new, regular members at his church, or what his net membership looks like year to year. If you noticed this already, then I’ll award 5 points to your House.