Devout and secular Americans alike have been heralding the decline of traditional faith since the time of the Puritans, but American religion always confounds reports of its demise. The crumbling of evangelical Christianity, in particular, is a favorite narrative of many in today's media, and is even a popular story among certain Christian pollsters. In spite of worrisome signs in segments of the American evangelical world, traditional faith in America is not going away soon.
The massive decline of mainline Protestant denominations is well documented. And as the Southern Baptist Convention's own LifeWay Research has noted, the largest Protestant denomination is showing alarming evidence of early decline, too. But as the recent Pew survey of religion indicated, the total number of evangelicals in America is holding steady. Part of the reason for this is that evangelicals are better at recruiting new adherents to replace those who fall away.
But Christian commitment in America, especially among evangelicals, may also be underreported. Baylor sociologists have found that the much-touted rise of the "nones" may not be all it is cracked up to be. Many people who indicate that they have "no religion" on a survey will then go on to name a specific congregation which they attend! A number of evangelicals have grown up with the idea that they do not have a "religion," but a personal relationship with Jesus. Others do not know what denomination to which their church belongs. These findings undercut some of the supposed ascendancy of unbelief.
What about the oft-cited falling away of young people? Again, there are reasons for concern here, especially in older denominations. For decades, many young American adults have stopped attending church once they get to college or enter the workforce. But what surveys miss is that they usually come back once they marry, or when they have kids. However, they often do not return to the church or tradition of their youth, but go somewhere that suits their tastes and needs better. The pattern of falling away permanently from church is stronger among those who never marry, and among the less educated.
Another reason for the underreported vitality of American faith is that independent congregations, an increasingly important factor, are difficult to track. These churches are typically evangelical, fundamentalist, or charismatic. They spring up in storefronts and meet in schools, and they often have no denominational agency to report their existence. Sometimes they close as quickly as they opened; other times they go on to become megachurches. But these churches, as well as the "church plants" of more established denominations, have the leanness and flexibility to reach more people.
Immigration patterns also fuel the strength of traditional American faith, both among Catholics and Protestants. According to Pew data, Latino evangelicals are the fastest growing religious group in America. The San Jose Mercury News recently profiled many of the independent Latino pastors in the Bay Area, such as Teodoro Lorenzo, a construction worker who pastors Oakland's Iglesia Evangelica de Espiritu Santo del Monte Sinai.
Ministering to Guatemalan immigrants, Lorenzo's church has grown from seven people to eighty in less than a decade. "With God's help, I am able to help many people, people who are living in vice, are in pain, their relationships are broken, and as they accept Christ, they see that another way is possible," Lorenzo said. Many immigrants not only find assurance of salvation in these churches, but social networks to help them manage the challenges associated with living in a new country.
You could tell similar stories about Asian or African immigrants who maintain vital, growing churches across America. The charismatic Nigerian-based Redeemed Christian Church of God, for instance, opened a $15.5 million Pavilion Center at its eighty-acre Redemption Camp outside of Dallas in 2013. In recent years the RCCG has opened missionary congregations across the world, including churches in American towns from Los Angeles to Fall River, Massachusetts.
Evangelicals, of course, believe that church growth and decline is ultimately in God's hands. If America goes fully secular, we will receive that as part of God's providential plans. But the clamor about the imminent death of traditional faith, in the short term, is much ado about nothing.