Is Christianity on the Decline in America?

Posted on September 4, 2016


Is Christianity is on the decline in America? What do the statistics tell us?

Statistics in fact point to a downward trending number of Christians in America, but not to a uniform decline across the board. There exist pockets of hope and amazing vigor in Christianity which we will explore in a future column. For now, let’s explore the downward trending aspects reported by the well-respected Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life.

The Christian share of the U. S. population is declining, and this is “trending” across Americans of all ages and across the demographic spectrum—whites, blacks, Latinos—education and geography. For example, those declaring themselves “unaffiliated” among the Millennial generation (ages 19-29) is on the rise, from 31% ten years ago to 35% today.

If you are a Christian, that is the bad news. Among those “unaffiliated” who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular,” some may be intensely secular and rabidly anti-religion. It’s still a free country. Have at it.

But there is a silver lining in much of the data produced by Pew.

Today America remains the home for more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans—roughly seven in ten—continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith. So, we extrapolate: we are still one nation, under God (Pledge of Allegiance), but about thirty percent of the total population are not Christian. Are they “under God” or not? That’s a theological and political issue for some other time.

The Pew study covers all religions. The share of Americans who identify with other religions has inched up from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014. For these seeking to seal up the borders and airports of America to contamination from the world, Muslims now represent almost 1% of the total population, Hindus have climbed to 0.7%, and Jews—long in America since our colonial background—are now almost 2% of the total population.

The fastest growing group in this hodgepodge of statistics are the “nothings in particular,” who went from 12.1% of the total population to 15.8% in the period 2007-2014, or an increase of 3.7%. There is some significance in that answer, but let’s not ponder it right now. I sometimes feel that way when wondering what is attractive about either of the frontrunners for president, Ms. Clinton or Mr. Trump: “nothing in particular” comes to mind.

Declines in mainline Protestants and Catholics have taken the biggest hits in the Christian presence in the U. S. Both of these categories declined about three percent since 2007, while evangelical Christians only declined one percent. On the other hand, American Christians are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Hispanics have especially grown in all three religious groups—mainline Protestants, evangelicals, and Catholics.

41% of Catholics are now made up of racial and ethnic minorities (up from 35% in 2007) while 24% of evangelical Protestants and 14% of mainline Protestants are made up of racial and ethnic minorities.

Why was there only a one percent decline among evangelicals, and a much higher percentage decrease in mainline Protestant churches, like the United Methodist, Presbyterian (USA), Episcopal, United Church of Christ, and other mainstream American Protestant churches that until the mid-20th century constituted a majority of all Christians in the U. S.?

Evangelicals are distinguished from the mainline churches by their emphasis on evangelization, or the spreading of the faith, the centrality of the “Born Again” experience and the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives and the lives of their churches.

It is a complex subject—distinguishing between different brands of Christianity—but, for the sake of argument, one group, the mainline churches, are more traditional, emphasizing a quiet order in their worship services, orthodoxy, strict continuity with the past, and often a creed-driven form of worship: a “let’s all recite…” type of worship, Lord’s Prayer, Nicene Creed, Hail Mary, etc.

Evangelicals tend to be, at least superficially, more spontaneous, given to expressions of joy rather than sorrow in their worship services, seriously evangelical in their commitment to bringing new and restoring old believers to the faith thereby fulfilling the Great Commission (Mathew 28:16-20), and very responsive to the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Evangelicals are changing Christianity today, sometimes radically. Some theologians and students of Christianity label this the “third Great Awakening” in American history. Given that the first two were profoundly transformative, this is a phenomenon we need to pay attention to.

Published as “Christianity: Is It Waning in America?” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, August 28, 2016.