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Yesterday, Pew Research Center released a MASSIVE treasure trove of religion data that made religion writers across the country spend the majority of their day yesterday huddled in front of a computer reading data tables and writing think pieces about impending demise of Christianity in America.
Headlines for various news outlets read, “Christians Are Losing Ground as “Nones” Are Soaring in America,” “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion,” and “Millennials leaving church in droves, study finds.”
Everyone’s running around all like this:
Because no one sticks a microphone in the face of a chicken who says, “All is well.” That’s boring.
Alarmism gets clicks. Clicks get money. So, Christianity is dying, and obviously you need to click my story to read about it.
So what’s the deal with the new Pew data?
Basically, the main stat that people keep pointing to is this: in 2007, 78% of Americans self-identified as “Christian,” in the 2014 Pew study, 70% of Americans identified as Christians—that’s a big difference, but it’s really not that big of a deal.
Without going into all of the specific data points, here’s what’s going on:
Back in the day, it was “culturally savvy” to call yourself a Christian. It had cultural value—there were benefits to being a “Christian” in American society.
As a result, a lot of people called themselves “Christians” who didn’t actually possess true, convictional Christian faith.
These people are called “nominals,” or people who are Christians in “name only.”
Today, a number of years after “back in the day,” it is definitely not culturally savvy to be a Christian. People don’t like Christians in most parts of the country. It costs a lot more social currency to be a Christian than it used to.
As a result, many of the people who called themselves “Christians,” simply because it was more beneficial than costly to do so, are starting to check “none” on the list of faith options on social surveys.
That’s basically what’s going on. So, you could say, nominal Christianity is declining, but you cannot say Jesus is losing followers.
NOTHING in Pew’s data shows that Christians who actually trust in Jesus for salvation are becoming non-Christians.
Take a look at this graph. While many would like to point out the “tragic” 0.9% evangelical decline, I see something different:
Nominals (Christians in name only) make up a higher percentage of Catholics and Mainline Protestants than they do Evangelical Protestants.
It’s harder to fake-it-until-you-make-it in evangelicalism than it is in Mainline or Catholic traditions. Let’s just be straight: it’s harder to fake being a devoted follower of Jesus in a Pentecostal church than it is a Catholic church. When the going gets tough, the fakers jump ship, and Catholic/Mainline traditions have more fakers than evangelicals.
In fact, the raw numbers for evangelicals look pretty good:
From 2007 to 2014 the number of evangelicals in America rose from 59.8 million to 62.2 million.
In 2007, 44% of American Christians, who made up 78% of the U.S. population identified as evangelical. In 2014, 50% of American Christians, who make up 70% of the U.S. population identify as evangelical.
“The evangelical Protestant tradition is the only major Christian group in the survey that has gained more members than it has lost through religious switching.” -Pew
All Pew’s data tells us is that less people are affiliating themselves with religious traditions than before. We don’t even know if those people bought into Christianity in the first place.
As I contributed to a piece at Christianity Today yesterday, “The percentage of Millennial evangelicals remained the same (21%) from 2007-2014. The only decline was among the Greatest Generation (28-25%), who, because of their age, are not a growth demographic.”
The answer is: not much of anything.
Two thirds of Millennials who were raised in religiously-unaffiliated homes maintain their religious unaffiliation into adulthood.
(It should be noted that much of Pew’s data regarding Millennials is looking primarily at older Millennials, or those born between 1980-1989. Younger Millennials (1990-2000) did not qualify as “adults” in 2007 when the first iteration of this survey was conducted.)
In the 2014 survey, 34% of Millennials born between 1980-1989 identified as “Unaffiliated,” and 36% of Millennials born between 1990-1996 (where Pew cuts of Millennials) identified as “Unaffiliated.” These are the highest percentages of any age group, with Gen Xers coming in a distant third at 23% reporting as “Unaffiliated.”
In 2007, 25% of older Millennials identified as religiously unaffiliated; that number increased by 9% to 34% in 2014.
We may be tempted to say, “Well, they’re young, wild, and free. Once they settle down, they’ll come to their senses and adopt a religion. Not necessarily. In 2010, in a Pew study on Millennials, they wrote:
The large proportion of young adults who are unaffiliated with a religion is a result, in part, of the decision by many young people to leave the religion of their upbringing without becoming involved with a new faith. In total, nearly one-in-five adults under age 30 (18%) say they were raised in a religion but are now unaffiliated with any particular faith. Among older age groups, fewer say they are now unaffiliated after having been raised in a faith (13% of those ages 30-49, 12% of those ages 50-64, and 7% of those ages 65 and older).
A lot of Millennials aren’t Christians. Period. The question for the church is: “What do we do?”
Share the gospel with them. The gospel has the power to save. Even when Christianity is “losing ground.”
Smoke machines and Starbucks aren’t all bad, but Millennials need more than concert worship and fancy coffee—they’ll see beyond that.
Here are just a few basic ingredients for reaching unbelieving Millennials. Nothing profound:
A love for honest, humble Christians is certainly not unique to the Millennial generation. Who wouldn’t love a Christian who is upfront about his sinfulness? However, when it comes to a generation like the Millennials, many of whom grew up amidst a cultural Christianity that formed a façade of personal holiness, regular acknowledgment of shortcomings can be a breath of fresh air.
If the local church is going to reach non-Christian Millennials, it is going to have to be willing to invest in true friendships with them. “Event Evangelism” cannot be abandoned—there is certainly something to be said for church Super Bowl parties and Fall Festivals—but the church must understand Millennials enough to know that young people are more likely to be attending your evangelistic events in hopes of making friends, or in response to a friend’s invitation, rather than experiencing the event itself.
In a country that is becoming increasingly tolerant of various social and relational lifestyles, the American Evangelical must both stand for the biblical definition of sin and love those who find such moral standards absurd. Millennials are leading the way on matters such as gay marriage, and while the Church mustn’t give in to cultural definition of morality, we must love those with whom we disagree.
A local church that is willing to call out the sin of the Millennial homosexual, but is not willing to discipline the unrepentant Boomer glutton will likely have much difficulty attracting a generation marked by a disdain for hypocrisy and an ethic of tolerance.
Christians, we need to not be shocked that our cultural influence is waning. We’ve been on this path for a while now. If this data, specifically as it relates to Millennials, tells us anything, it’s this: it is as important as ever that the church proclaim the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If our Christianity is about politics or power grabs, it will die.
A Christianity formed around the unshakeable gospel of Jesus Christ cannot die. The source of its life died and rose to impenetrable glory.
Christianity may be “losing ground,” but only because it was ground it never really occupied in the first place.
American Christianity is bleeding, there’s no doubt about that. As one lets blood from a wound to prevent infection, so the American church must willingly release the nominal Christians whose unbelief in the lifeblood of the church makes them enemies of it.