Post One in the series “A Church for the Next Generation”

The church, we are told, is graying rapidly. Churches in rural areas are shrinking as Americans migrate to the cities, while churches in urban areas are not the bastions of ethnic and religious solidarity they once were. One Philadelphia church, its congregation having dwindled almost to nothing, sold its landmark building, which is now a haven for heroin addicts. “I know it’s probably not the right thing to do,” said Josh Green, 28, an addict now sleeping on the floor of what was once the church’s office, “But I honestly feel a little more comfortable because I know I am in God’s house.”

Josh Green, perversely, might be spending more time in church than most people his age. Millennials, we hear, are leaving the church in record numbers. A Barna survey concludes that 59% of millennials raised in the church have dropped out at some point. The Pew Research Forum has released data indicating that the percentage of Americans calling themselves religiously unaffiliated has risen quickly from 16.1% in 2007 to 22.8% in 2014. In that time, they surpassed Catholics and mainline Protestants as a share of the population. That’s a staggering change.

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But how real is this decline in religious affiliation? Not very, says Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University. Quoted in Deseret News in 2011 (before the Pew research referenced above was released, but referencing similar research), he summarizes the skeptical attitude some researchers have toward the “decline narrative” in church attendance:

“The years pass and nothing changes,” Stark said. “This has been going on forever. I published data on this in 1965 for heaven’s sakes.”

Stark said that poll questions about affiliation leaves too much in question about the choice “no religion.” If you take the atheists out of that group, he said you would discover that most of the “no religion” people pray. “Most people who say they have no religion mean they have no church. They aren’t saying they have no religion.”

This isn’t just a blustering Christian researcher of the old guard ignoring the plain facts. Stark demonstrates in his book The Triumph of Faith (ISI Books, 2015) that most of the change in self-reported religious affiliation is among those who didn’t attend church anyway.

Back in 1990 most Americans who seldom or never attended church still claimed a religious affiliation when asked to do so. Today, when asked their religious preference, instead of saying Methodist of Catholic, now a larger proportion of non-attenders say “none,” by which most seem to mean “no actual membership.” The entire change has taken place within the nonattending group, and the nonattending group has not grown.

In 1990, roughly 34% of Americans reported attending weekly church services. 2014? Still 34%. If rates of church attendance are fairly stable, then Stark must be right–or else a whole lot of religious people are telling the surveyors a tall tale and saying they’re unaffiliated. This fact even takes the teeth out of the scary “59% of millennials” statistic I quoted earlier. A religious home, as defined by the researchers, didn’t even include regular church attendance.

In fact, the problem is not that young people are leaving the church. Although there may in fact be a small shift away from Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, evangelical churches are generally strong, and if they are losing members it is due to an aging population, not disappearing youths.

The problem–if it is is in fact a problem–is the decline in cultural Christianity. In most western countries, there has been social and sometimes even legal pressure to be or seem to be Christian for hundreds of years. The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that public school prayers to the Christian God were abolished. As our society becomes more secular, and more liberal (in the sense of free, or permissive), the cultural pressure to be Christian decreases. As one writer put it, “the nominals are becoming nones.”

This is a problem for the witness of the church, but it is not the death knell for the Church in America. The number of faithful Christians across the world is going up and up — even in America the declines are not precipitous as they have been in Europe. Our challenge now must be to show that the church is not a cultural institution but a life-changing, world-changing force. Our Lord Christ did not create the Church to be a social club, but to fight to protect the lives of the unborn, to give to the poor, and above all to share the Gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected. So if the number of young people who call themselves Christians is reduced to those who actually follow Jesus, that will be no bad thing.

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