Pew Research on declining Christianity in America

Is Christianity declining in America? Pew Research has once again posted what seems to be a bombshell: “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” says “Christians decline sharply as share of population, unaffiliated and other faiths continue to grow.” The tweeted takeaway: between 2007-14, the Christian share of the population fell from 78.4% to 70.6%, or a decline of 8 percentage points. But, the fine print: this loss was mostly among mainline Catholics and Protestants; evangelicals dropped barely at all.

  • Ed Stetzer: Nominals to Nones: 3 key takeaways from Pew’s Religious Landscape survey: 1. convictional Christianity is rather steady, while nominals become nones. (see report for other 2). “Christianity isn’t dying and no research says it is…”

  • Center for Study of Global Christianity: it’s not that fewer Americans identify as Christians, it’s that fewer Americans identify as affiliated with churches or denominations. Nuance & definitions matter.

  • Wall Street Journal questions the findings, particularly about Catholic declines; other studies don’t see the same drops.

  • On “The Diane Rehm Show,” the numbers are discussed. “These trends are not new, but what is new is that their rate of change is accelerating.”

The challenge with the survey instrument, to me: it’s measuring Christianity by which denomination you’re self-identify as part of (Protestant, Catholic, Pentecostal, evangelical, etc.) 

Some people have nominally identified themselves as part of a tradition (e.g. Catholic) but have not attended – they are “professing but not affiliated.” They might show up once or twice a year. In this survey, they are now saying “nothing in particular” to the religion question, but it might mean “not attending any church in particular.” Does this mean you have abandoned Christianity altogether, that you would no longer identify as a Christian? 

I asked these lines of questions to @CSGC, and they commented (off the cuff, “Hard to say, depends on person: but there is a trend of people leaving institutions but still identifying as religious.”) These details get complex (and, really down in the weeds, don’t even address the “heart condition” of the individual). I think Ed Stetzer has the most concise summary: “nominals are becoming nones, while the committed remain steady.” However, there is one interesting aspect: Millennials are “driving growth of the ‘nones.’” 

It’s a mistake to think this situation will always be–that this generation is “lost.” There have been other periods in American history where a generation turned away from their faith young, and then returned to it older: read The Fourth Turning for generational cycles. Back in 2011 Rodney Stark responded when Barna Research (back then) claimed young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves: “Surveys always find younger people less likely to attend church… having left home, many single young adults choose to sleep in on Sunday mornings.” 

This may be a simplification of the complexities, but it does reflect on this reality: when young men leave home, they often stop attending church, at least with any frequency. When they get married, they come back. This, too, was a trend reflected historically in the American church, documented in history by Stark’s “The Churching of America.” Despite the breathless headlines accompanying Pew’s numbers, I’m not too worried.

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