We are witnessing the collapse of cultural Christianity in the United States. This development should not come as any surprise; this trend was visible years ago. Perhaps the only surprise with the collapse is the speed in which it is happening over the last decade.
The Pew Research Center released a report last Friday that shows the rapid pace in which cultural Christianity has declined over the previous decade.
Some of the chief findings:
- Twelve percent fewer Americans identify as Christian (65 percent) while religious “nones” (atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated) now consist of 26 percent of the population up 9 percent.
- In 2009, a majority of Americans identified themselves as Protestant. In 2019, only 43 percent of Americans do. Only one in five Americans now identify as Catholic, down 3 percent from 2009.
- Atheists have doubled their numbers from 2 percent in 2009 to 4 percent in 2019. There are three percent more agnostics in 2019, 5 percent, than in 2009. The unaffiliated or “nothing in particular” subset of Americans has grown by five percent from 12 percent to 17 percent.
- Only 49 percent of Millennials identify as Christian and four-in-ten identify as a religious “none.”
The Pew Research Center notes that among all Americans, church attendance is down, but church attendance remained steady among those who identified as Christian.
“Today, 62% of Christians say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month, which is identical to the share who said the same in 2009. In other words, the nation’s overall rate of religious attendance is declining not because Christians are attending church less often, but rather because there are now fewer Christians as a share of the population,” they write.
I say cultural, not authentic, Christianity is in decline because the numbers of those who are actually faithful have always been less than those who identify as faithful.
The polling results on church attendance lends evidence to that. Those who faithfully attended church are still attending church, those that were not aren’t.
That’s not to say there isn’t a decline in church membership because there has been a sharp decline in the last two decades. That said, Mainline Protestant churches are notorious for having larger membership roles than actual attendance.
Those who attend church or become a member because that was the cultural norm and expectation where they lived, more than likely, when cultural norms and expectations shift, they won’t attend anymore.
I believe that is part of what we are seeing. Jesus even said there would be those among our number who don’t believe, (Matthew 7:21).
The drop-off of Millenials identifying as a Christian is also evidence of a cultural shift. Churches have, in my lifetime, always seen a decline in attendance by younger adults. When I was a youth pastor, we called it the “graduation evacuation.” It was the result of many things, namely, newfound independence, coupled with an immature or non-existent faith entering a culture that is increasingly hostile to biblical values.
God doesn’t have grandchildren, and graduates who leave home clinging to their parents’ faith rather than owning their faith inevitably have a crisis of belief. At that point, they either fall away from Jesus or flee to Him.
Jesus described disciples like these graduates when he told his parable of the sower in Mark 4. Some have the word taken away. Some receive it with joy, but they have no root, so when they encounter difficulty, they fall away. Some see their faith choked out by the cares of the world. Then some flourish, grow in their faith and make disciples.
The problem is two-fold. On the one hand, you have an increasingly secular culture. On the other hand, families and churches fail to disciple the next generation.
Regarding our culture, “there is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This circumstance is nothing new; the Church has faced a hostile culture before.
Jesus even promised persecution. “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you,” (John 15:20b, ESV). Why do we think this warning doesn’t apply to us?
American Christians, by and large, are complacent and comfortable because most of us have never had to suffer for our faith. Our liberty in the United States has been a blessing for sure, but because of it, we have not experienced the refinement that persecution can bring.
That time could be fast approaching. How will we respond? Are we living for Christ now? Are we sharing Christ now? What makes us think it is going to get any easier?
In terms of making disciples of our children and children in our churches, is it a priority?
As parents, are we just depending upon Sunday school and youth group? Do we pass off educating our kids to a public school system that is, at best, indifferent to their faith or are we actively involved? Are we willing to make the sacrifices needed in time and treasure to disciple our kids?
Churches, do you spend so much effort on attracting children and youth you neglect to disciple them and produce shallow Christians? Are you empowering parents to disciple their children? Is the church so segmented by age children and youth are disconnected? Is your ministry gospel-centered?
The Pew Research Center report should cause self-reflection for individual Christians, families, and churches.