The Chapel of Christ
409 West Marion Street, Shelby
Sunday mornings at 10:30

Is Christianity Declining?

For the past several weeks, we’ve closely examined some Bible passages, really got down close and looked at them. 
 
Today, I thought it would be nice to do something completely different, to back way off and look at some interesting trends in general.
 
One of the things I find fascinating is to look at surveys done in this country about religion and Christianity.  I’ve always found those interesting to look at.  One of the things you have to be careful about, though, is that you have to look at surveys that are well-done, well-designed, and are not trying to promote a certain agenda.  Lots of religious groups put out surveys with data that are all over the map. 
 
The one I trust most; in fact, just about the only one I pay attention to, is the Pew organization.  The Pew Research organization is part of the Pew Charitable Trust, and it is highly regarded across the political and religious spectrum for not only being unbiased but also for its accuracy.
 
There is a trend going on in the United States.  It’s a trend that has gotten stronger and stronger over a short period of time.  The percentage of American adults who describe themselves as Christians is declining rapidly.
 
In 1948, 91% of adults in the United States identified themselves as Christians.  In 2007, about 60 years later, 78% of American adults described themselves as Christians.  That’s a decline of 13 percentage points in 60 years.  It’s a decline, but it’s only an average decline of one quarter of one percent per year.
 
However, in 2014 only 70% of American adults described themselves as Christians.  That’s a drop of eight percentage points in seven years, an average of over one percent per year, four times what the average was from 1948 until 2007.  The percentage of American adults who identify themselves as Christians dropped 7% in 8 years.
 
From 1948, this represents a tremendous decline in the percentage of American adults who describe themselves as Christians.  This decline is taking place across the entire spectrum of American adults—among both men and women, across all educational and income levels, in all areas of the country, and among all races.
 
Also, the number of American adults who say they have no religion is also increasing.  In 2007, 16% of American adults said they had no religion.  In 2014, 23% of American adults said they had no religion.  That’s about one quarter of American adults who say they have no religion.
 
The most recent figures we’ve talked about so far are from 2014.  Figures from 2018 show the trend is accelerating. 
 
A survey done earlier this year showed that 80% of American adults say they believe in God.  19% say they do not.  That doesn’t sound too bad; 80% believe in God.  But the figures behind that are ominous.  Only 56% say they believe in God as described in the Bible, the God of Christianity.  While 80% of American adults say they believe in a God, only 56% say they believe in the God of Christianity.  23% say they do not believe in the God of Christianity but instead believe in a God as “some higher spiritual force.”  So, only 56% of American adults believe in the God of Christianity.  That’s only slightly more than half.
 
Looking even deeper at those results, when you look at the people who do not believe in God at all and the people who do not believe in the God of Christianity but instead believe in some “higher spiritual force,” you see something very interesting.  Many of these people used to be Christians.  Many of them were raised in church, but they left church as an adult.  They went to church as children, were raised in youth programs, active in youth groups, but they left church as an adult.
 
That in itself is not surprising, though.  Studies have shown for years that church youth programs are ineffective.  For years it has been true that somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of youth involved in church youth programs drop out of church by the time they are sophomores in college.  What’s so interesting about these results, though, is that most of the young adults who drop out say they made the decision to drop out back when they were still teenagers.  Back when their parents were forcing them to participate in church youth programs, they made the decision that when they got free of their parents, they would ditch church.  And they did.  They didn’t ditch church because they went off to college and fell in with the wrong crowd or came under different influences.  They had already made the decision years back that as soon as they could, they were out of church.
 
So, we have gone from 91% of American adults identifying themselves as Christian in 1948 to 56%, for all practical purposes, identifying themselves as Christian today.  That’s going from almost everybody to only a little more than half.  And it has happened within our lifetimes.
 
Obviously, people are deciding that Christianity is not for them, and they are deciding that in droves.
 
But why?  The number one reason people give is that they no longer believe.  Half of all people who leave Christianity say they simply do not believe it.  Another 18 to 20 percent or so who leave don’t flat out say they don’t believe it; they say they have serious doubts about Christian beliefs.  So approximately two thirds of people who leave Christianity say they left because, to one degree or another, they don’t believe Christianity.
 
The next biggest reason people give for leaving Christianity is that they don’t like organized, institutional religion.  20% of people who leave Christianity say they left because they don’t like organized religion.  They may have become what we would call “private Christians” who have some form of Christian beliefs but don’t participate in any kind of organized Christianity.  But that’s a small percentage of those who leave.  The main reason, for two thirds of the people who leave, is that they do not believe Christianity.
 
People are leaving Christianity because they do not believe it. 
 
The way things used to be, the way we used to expect things to work, was that sometimes when people were in college or in their early 20’s, they’d sort of fall away from Christianity for awhile.  They’d go out and “sow their wild oats.”  But then after they settled down and married and had children, they’d come back.  That’s the way things used to be.  But we can’t expect that anymore.  Now, people are not leaving because they’re busy, or sowing their wild oats, or something like that and will come back later.  They’re leaving because they don’t believe.  More than likely, those people will never come back to Christianity.
 
That is born out by the statistics.  Of the 70 to 90 percent of young people who were raised in church youth programs but drop out after high school, only a small percentage ever return.
 
People are leaving Christianity because they do not believe it.
 
I know a lot is said today about making church hip and trendy and with-the-times.  If a church doesn’t have as many people as it used to, the popular advice is that they need to change to something more “contemporary.”  But, people aren’t leaving church because churches don’t use drums and guitars.  People aren’t leaving church because churches don’t have big video screens in the sanctuary.
 
I know one church that, 15 or so years ago, was concerned about losing members.  The conventional advice was that they needed to do two things:  First, they needed to offer a contemporary service.  Second, they needed to build a large fellowship building with a gymnasium in it, for the young people.  They hired a consultant who assured them that if they did this, people would come.  “Build it, and they will come,” so the advice went, for which they paid the consultant almost $40,000.
 
They started the contemporary service, and no one came.  They built the fellowship/gymnasium building, and they were losing more members after they built the building than they were before.
 
So much for consultants and conventional wisdom.
 
People are leaving because they no longer believe Christianity.  They are not rejecting church; they are rejecting Christianity itself.
 
So what is the biggest reason why people reject Christianity?  You hear so much negative stuff about Christians today.  You hear that Christians are too judgmental.  You hear that Christians are hypocrites.  But that’s not why people are rejecting Christianity.  The number one reason people give for rejecting Christianity is they say Christianity is anti-science.  People are rejecting Christianity because it doesn’t agree with science.  That’s the number one reason people give for rejecting Christianity—they believe science, not Christianity.  Science is replacing Christianity as people’s “religion.”
 
Some people are able to reconcile Christianity with science and hold a scientific worldview and still be Christians, but many are not.  Many see it as an either/or; you either accept Christianity or you accept science, and an increasing number of these people are choosing science over Christianity.
 
Those are interesting statistics.  They are the bare-bones facts.  They could be depressing for those of us who are Christians.  But of course, statistics and bare-bones facts have to be interpreted in order to be useful.
 
So how can we interpret them?  Well, you could say that 70 years ago, most Americans were Christians—91% of all American adults, 70 years ago, were Christians.  But now, only about half of American adults are Christians.  You could say that over the past 70 years, a lot of people have decided that Christianity is not for them.  Christianity is declining in the United States.
 
But, you could look at it another way.  It could be that 70 years ago, there wasn’t really a larger percentage of American adults who were Christians than there are today.  It could be that there were a lot of people who claimed to be Christians because it was the thing to do; it was what was expected.  Maybe a lot of the people back then who claimed to be Christians really weren’t Christians; they just said they were because it was part of the expectations of the culture.  It was part of American society to be a Christian, and even if you really weren’t a Christian, you claimed to be just because that’s what was expected.  If you wanted to get along in society, you had to claim to be a Christian whether you really believed Christianity or not.
 
But of course today, society has changed to where it is more accepted not to be a Christian.  People today who don’t really believe Christianity don’t feel the societal pressure to say they do like people 70 years ago did.  There’s not the societal pressure to be a Christian today like there was 70 years ago.  People who aren’t believers don’t feel like they have to say they are.  Today, it’s more accepted to say you’re not a Christian, so people who aren’t believers just go ahead and admit they aren’t.
 
After all, 70 years ago, it was expected that all decent, respectable people went to church.  Today, however, it’s no longer necessarily expected of decent, respectable people.
 
Imagine 70 years ago, back in 1948, back when virtually everybody identified themselves as a Christian.  Imagine if a couple had moved into town, and you, being neighborly, invited them to church.  What if they had said, “We don’t believe in God”?  Back in 1948, they would have been seen as freaks.  People would not have wanted to have anything to do with them.  In 1948, someone moving into town here that said they didn’t believe in God would have been regarded as a weirdo.  Everybody back then believed in God and went to church.
 
But society has changed, and that’s no longer the case.  It’s more accepted not to believe in God.
 
Today, if a couple moved into town and you invited them to church and they said they didn’t believe in God, the reaction would be totally different than what it would have been in 1948.  It wouldn’t cause a stir today like it would have in 1948.
 
I remember when I was in the first grade.  A girl came into the class sometime during the year because her family had just moved here.  She was from up north somewhere, and she was Catholic.  I had never seen a Catholic in my life, at least that I knew of.  And people sort of steered clear of her.  They would whisper and say, “She’s Catholic!”
 
And, to my knowledge, I had never seen a Jewish person until I went to college.  Maybe I had and just didn’t realize it.  But I had a friend at Chapel Hill whose roommate was Jewish, and I remember telling her, “You’re the first Jewish person I’ve ever known in my life.”
 
So, you can imagine how odd it would have been for someone not to believe in God, and you can imagine how even if someone didn’t believe in God, they would have kept quiet about it, and you may very well have seen them at church on Sundays.
 
Talking about people at college, I had a roommate there, and I sometimes visited his family on weekends and during the summers.  We always went to church at the church the family went to.  It was a downtown church, and it was very snooty; in fact, it was the snootiest church I had ever been in.  Every single time I ever went there, which was a number of times over a 3 or 4 year period, the sermon was always about trying to get people to give money.  They were always doing something or other for which they needed money, and that’s all you ever heard.  One time the minister even said he wished it were possible to have a minimum contribution level in order to maintain your name on the church roll.
 
So I asked my friend one day, “Why in the world do you all go to that church?”  He replied that they moved to that town when his father had just graduated from medical school and was starting a practice, and the type of people who went to that church were the type of people his father wanted to attract in his medical practice, so that’s why they went there.
 
There are a lot of reasons people go to church, some of which have nothing to do with religion.
 
So is it that the percentage of Christians in the United States has dramatically declined over the past 70 years, or is it just that society has changed to where people feel it is acceptable to admit that they’re not Christians?  Are we really in a time where people are rejecting Christianity in droves, or are we just in a time where people feel it is more acceptable to express their true feelings about Christianity?
 
It’s a lot to think about, and I really wonder which it is.  I don’t know any way to know, for sure.  There are arguments that could be made for each.
 
Did we live at a time when we were at the crest of the wave of Christianity in the United States, and from now on, Christianity will decline in this country?  Or has nothing really changed except that society has changed to the point where people no longer feel they have to pretend to believe something they really don’t?
 
I don’t know.  It’s something to think about.