Prompted by Pope Francis’s recent historic visit to the United States, Bill Hemmer did a special broadcast for Fox News called “Losing Faith in America.” Fox claimed, “Church attendance has been going down for decades, and fewer and fewer people identify as Christian. Will this troubling trend continue, or is there hope? And what’s behind the decline?”
Search “Christianity is dying” online and you’ll find some groups gleefully proclaiming the church’s demise and then evangelical Christians wringing their hands and fretting, especially about the “Nones” and Millennials, both rumored to be the beginning of the end of Christianity.
The only problem is it isn’t true. It reminds me of Mark Twain’s famous note to the New York Journal in 1897 after newspapers reported him to be ill or dead: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Instead, it was a case of mistaken identity. His cousin, James Ross Clemens, was seriously ill and the newspapers mixed up their Clemenses.
In a similar way, the people who pronounce that evangelicals or Christianity is dying are mixing up the identities of the Nones (those who have no religious affiliation) and evangelicals — and are inadvertently distorting the data.
I’ve spent substantial time studying generations and faith, so I was especially excited when Pew Research Center’s study on America’s Changing Religious Landscape came out just as my publisher was typesetting my next book, Generational IQ: Christianity Isn’t Dying, the Millennials Aren’t the Problem, and the Future Is Bright. We were able to “hold the presses” so I could use Pew’s latest data to explain why so many folks are jumping to the wrong conclusions.
Let me explain four ways they’ve gotten it wrong — and why Christianity isn’t actually going away any time soon.
1. Nones are not the same as dropouts.
We have mistaken the Nones for people who have dropped out of Christianity, when in reality, many of them were never practicing Christians. It is true that more people now select “None” when asked their religious affiliation.
In a 2014 survey, Pew found that 22.8 percent of Americans — including 35 percent of Millennials — are Nones, the highest percentage the organization ever polled. Nones are tied with Baptists for the second largest group in the United States. Only Catholics are larger.
But this dramatic increase in the Nones does not mean that younger generations are suddenly rejecting Christianity. In the past, people who never attended church or even lived a “wild” lifestyle still selected “Christian” as their affiliation, even though their nonreligious neighbors would have laughed had they known. They were Nones, but told researchers they were Christians because of the social stigma.
Today more people feel comfortable saying they aren’t Christian. Yes, more folks are not connected with a church now, but the rapid rise of the Nones is not as sudden or dramatic as it looks, because there never were as many Christians as surveys indicated.
The rise of the Nones is also not as significant as the headlines make it seem because 3.5 million people called themselves Nones but do attend church weekly. They just don’t want to be labeled. Twenty-seven percent of Nones attend church anywhere from monthly to a couple times a year.
With so many claiming that the United States is turning into Europe, we might think that church attendance has dropped by half in the last two generations. Instead, according to the General Social Survey, the percentage of people who say they go to church has been stable the past 40 years: 40 percent in 1972, and at 30 percent for the last two decades. Gallup’s numbers are even higher. In 2014, 53 percent of Protestants and 45 percent of Catholics claimed to attend church at least monthly. Eight in ten claimed to attend occasionally.
It’s a case of mistaken identity. While the number of people who claim a religious affiliation has dropped to historic lows, that does not mean they have all left Christianity, evangelicalism, or the church.
2. Atheism isn’t growing as rapidly as people believe.
When I speak on how the different generations approach religion, I ask what percentage of people in the United States believe in God today and my groups consistently guess in the 45-65 percent range. They are startled when I tell them that a 1944 Gallup survey found that 96 percent of Americans believed in God. Gallup asked the same question in 2011, and 92 percent said they believed in God. In addition, in 2014, 75 percent told Gallup their religious preference was Christian.
Going back to our None friends, most are not atheists. The number of atheists and agnostics has barely risen in 40 years, even though they receive more attention today. In 2012, Pew found that two-thirds of Nones say they believe in God (68 percent), while 21percent admit they pray every day.
3. Some churches did lose members, but evangelicals did not.
Despite the hand wringing of evangelicals and the premature celebrations of humanists, evangelicals actually grew. Although more liberal Protestant denominations and the Catholic church lost a significant number of members, it was not a disastrous drop. When people hear that some denominations have declined, they mistakenly assume all denominations are declining.
4. Evangelicals were never as big as we thought.
While evangelical churches have grown slightly, the total number of evangelicals is much smaller than we thought. It’s surprising to many that evangelicals are, at best, less than half of the 40 percent figure we have heard for years. More likely, they are less than a quarter of that number. That’s 22 million (7 percent) to 62 million (20 percent), rather than 124 million (40 percent). Where did the 40 percent number come from? That’s how many people throughout the years have told Gallup they are “born again.”
How could surveys be off that much? Because when people who claim to be born again are asked additional questions, many of them expose that their beliefs are different from those of orthodox Christianity. Gallup acknowledges the challenge of defining “evangelical” and “born again.”
Some of their surveys try to better define “evangelical” by asking whether people believe the Bible is the actual Word of God or if they have tried to encourage someone to believe in Jesus Christ. When they ask those who claim to be born again those two follow-up questions, the numbers drop to 22 percent.
In other words, the label “born again” has misled us into mistaking evangelicals for a much bigger group than they actually are.
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So is Christianity dying? No. Like Mark Twain’s demise, the report of the inevitable death of Christianity is also exaggerated because of mistaken identities. It will frustrate its critics and comfort its followers, but Christianity is still alive and well.
Image courtesy of Thoai / Shutterstock.com.