Christianity’s Decline (or lack thereof): What it Means for Evangelism

Pew Research found a decline in Christianity and a rise of the religiously unaffiliated. This article analyzes this trend and its impact on evangelism.

Pew Research released the results of a study between 2007 and 2014 that asked about people’s religious affiliation. The results showed a a significant drop in the number of people who chose “Chrsitianity,” and a substantial rise of those who chose “unaffiliated.” James Emery White wrote about this trend in his 2014 book, The Rise of the Nones by James Emory White (a wonderful and timely work that I may require my students to read).

However, Pew’s releasing of the results was not without controversy and spin-doctoring. Depending on which media outlet you read—or which ones show up in your Twitter or Facebook feed—you might have seen various interpretations. Some media promoted the idea that Christianity is in decline, while others rejected the idea. At least one, however, tried to ride the proverbial fence.

Some of the headlines you might have seen:

Pro-Decline Articles

Anti-Decline Articles

Both/And Articles (Fence-Riding)

Despite the particular interpretations of those articles listed above, none of these accurately interpret Pew Research’s results.

Properly Understanding Christianity’s Decline

The key to a correct understanding of Pew’s findings can be seen in their own headline: “Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow” (emphasis added).

Notice the italicized phrase, “as share of population”? That’s what it seems many have overlooked. Many Christians reacted harshly, denouncing the results, while other individuals saw it an ominous sign of a de-Christianizing of America. Others tried to differentiate between evangelicals and Christians. However, all of these ignore that one simple key phrase: as a share of the population.

Here’s what Pew Research found:

  • Those choosing to affiliate themselves as “Christians” is a smaller proportion of the overall United States population
  • Those choosing to affiliate themselves as “unaffiliated” is a larger proportion of the overall United States population

That doesn’t mean there are fewer Christians. It doesn’t mean Christianity is dying. It also doesn’t mean atheism or agnosticism are increasing.

Even more, one does not need to create a divide between Christians and evangelicals (one that is subjective at best, dismissive of some denominations at worst) to make one’s own subgroup look better. Making the argument, “Christians are declining, but us evangelicals are growing” is tantamount to a prideful, “Those non-Christian Catholics are dying out, but us evangelicals are great!”

Over-interpreting the results is a common practice (one I am guilty of at times). However, in this case it is unnecessary and possibly unhealthy (or even un-christian). Regardless of the spin, however, I was left wondering what could lead to such a change. While the answers are voluminous (cf. White’s book linked above), the simplest answer is probably the best answer.

Possible Cause of the Decline of Christianity

I want to emphasize “possible” because what I propose is merely my opinion. I may be correct, but I may be wrong. I believe this per capita decline of Christianity is due to one significant reason: Christianity is growing far slower than the total US population.

[pullquote]A healthy understanding is needed in order to comprehend the realities of America today and develop strategies to deal with those realities.[/pullquote]

As the population grows by leaps and bounds, unless the number of individuals choosing to affiliate themselves as Christians grows as the same rate, then the overall percentage will shrink.

Think of it this way: Imagine you have ten M&Ms, seven blue and three red. You then grab ten more M&Ms, five blue and five red. In this example the blue represents Christianity, red represents the unaffiliated.

Your total number of Christians (blue) grew by five, from seven to twelve. However, as a percentage of the total number of M&Ms, Christians went from 70% to 60%. In this example, Christianity is growing, but just growing slower than the total number of M&Ms.

One could panic and say that red M&Ms are in decline. Per capita (percentage), yes; total numbers, no.

One could deny the per capita decline by making a difference between the red M&Ms, saying, “Red M&Ms are declining, but red ones with the ‘m’ fully visible are growing.”

However, the best interpretation is the simplest one: per capita, those affiliating with Christianity are declining in the United States. That’s it.

There are some other issues we must take into consideration in this survey that it seems many overlook: Are people refusing to affiliate with the Christian faith or with the organized Christian religion (the two are not the same). Do people have a different understanding of being “Christian” than what we may think? Are some choosing the only seemingly neutral position simply to avoid titles or organizations? For example, many choose “independent” in political surveys, not because they disagree with both parties, but because they don’t want to be affiliated with those specific organizations.

What the Christianity’s Decline Means for Evangelism

I believe that this survey, along with studies done by the Barna Group, LifeWay Research, and many others, indicates quite a few things regarding Christianity and evangelism that we must accept.

First, Christians are growing slower than the US population. While many individual churches might be experiencing phenomenal growth, or specific denominations might be seeing increases, Christianity overall is growing slower than the US population.

Second, reliance on traditional evangelistic methods alone will not work. While there is nothing wrong with the traditional methods of doing evangelism, reliance on them as the sole or even the primary strategy will only feed the per capita decline of Christianity. Rather, we must re-think our churchwide strategy and develop ways to become more gospel-centered in our approach, our lives, and our vision. Furthermore, we must develop ways to reach out to the unaffiliated, or as James Emory White refers to them, the “nones.”

Third, denominationalism is deadly to the kingdom. Although denominationalism has declined in recent decades, there are many who still cling to it. There are many who love to tout the virtues of their own denomination, arguing that somehow they are superior (even if only by inference) to all the others. There are even some that erroneously and unbiblically believe that to grow one’s denomination is to grow God’s kingdom (or to grow one’s church is to grow the kingdom). The world watches as Christians fight among themselves, promote their own organizations (that’s all denominations really are anyway: manmade organizations), and bicker over who is right and who is wrong. The world sees this and says, “Why should we be part of that egotistical, prideful, feuding group?” We must unite in love and under the gospel. We can, and we will, disagree, but we should not delve into denominationalism.

Fourth, Christians are seen as overbearing, uncaring judges rather than loving Christ-followers. When it comes to social issues, the world looks at how Christians react, or in many cases overreact, and does not see love, but only hateful judgment. The problem isn’t in what we believe, but in how we express it. When Christians look at certain behaviors or social norms, they too often respond with something tantamount to “You evil sinner! You’re going to hell!” Rather, it’d be better to say, “Friend, I love you and God loves you, but I just can’t agree with your particular position or choices.” I remember what someone once told me as a youth in Arkansas about how to phrase things. He said there are two ways to tell a woman she’s lovely: “Your beauty causes time to stand still,” or “Your face would stop a clock.” We can and should rebuke sin. However, it can and should be done in love, but it too often comes across as judgmental.

Final Thoughts on the Decline in Christianity

It seems that any time there is something somewhat negative about Christianity in America, Christians are quick to react and, sometimes, overreact. Overanalysis (something for which I’m often guilty) becomes rampant, less to understand the information and more to defend one’s position or religious group. Rather, a healthy understanding is needed in order to comprehend the realities of America today and develop strategies to deal with those realities.

One of those new realities is the rapidly growing group of the religiously unaffiliated. More people are choosing no religious affiliation than ever before, leading to a decline in Christianity as a percentage of the US population. This means that we no longer live in a country where the Christian worldview dominates or even defines many people. Rather, people approach religion with preconceived notions, biases, and their own views on spirituality. Thus, how we reach out to these individuals is different than how we reach out to those who are simply unchurched.

Finally, although our positions on social issues may be biblical, we must re-evaluate how we approach those issues and how we interact with the world. We can change our method without changing our message. While Jesus was quite firm on sin, he did not confront sinners in judgment, but in love. We should follow that example.

About John L. Rothra
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