For a long time now, I've been struggling against the American faith doomsayers. Now that Pew Research has released their study of the American religious landscape in 2014, I need to call us back from the edge of the death of the church in the United States. The doomsayers are wrong, and paying attention history shows it. Fair warning: This will be a longer post than normal.
Since most of us only read the headline, I need to start with the headline Pew gives to this report.
Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow
Oh no! What will we do? How about take a breather. Things really aren't that bad.
It is true that between 2007 and 2014 the number of people in the U.S. that identify as Christian has fallen from 78.4% to 70.8%, mostly coming from a decrease in people who identify as members of a Protestant (down 4.8%), mainline (down 3.4%), or Roman Catholic (down 3.1%) tradition. In sum, this is large enough to note, but as groups, this is minimal change and totally ignores the five other groups of Christian traditions that show no change.
Where are the people going? Well, not actually to "other faiths." The rate of non-Christian faiths did grow by 1.2% in the Islamic (up 0.5%), Hindu (up 0.3%), and the official "Other Faiths" (up 0.3%) traditions.
The actual growth seems to be in apathy as the "Nothing in particular" category showed the most growth at a rate of 3.7%. But I guess a headline like, "More Americans Don't Care About Religion," doesn't draw the clicks like overstatements of organizational demise.
Or here's another possible headline: "Christian Minority Rights Discussed"
Although, to be fair, that headline could have come from the year 1776, when it is estimated that a whopping 17% of the people in the United States identified as Christian.
No that's not a typo. 17%.
A surprisingly well documented Wikipedia article is helpful in remembering our own history. It wasn't until the 20th century that the United States was a predominantly Christian country. For most of our history, the U.S. has had a minority of Christians in the population.
What caused the change? Lots of things. The birth of Pentecostalism, two world wars, the development of Sunday School, the Great Depression... But I would argue that the most significant influence was this country's response to the rise of Communism.
American Cold-War Christendom
For years, the rise of Communism caused fear in the United States, fear that was turned on even citizens in the form of McCarthyism. For average Americans, part of proving they weren't Communists was being active in a church. President Eisenhower created an environment that encouraged this, and people were told to attend the church of their choice.
While not a formal establishment of Christendom, this encouragement from the President and other official, political actions, created a de facto Christendom, as others have noted. A verbal contract was made between political authorities and churches in the U.S. in which the culture would encourage people to join and engage in the life of congregations.
As the threat of Communism waned, political authorities backed out of the verbal contract without bothering to tell the churches. So after a generation of not having to talk with our neighbors about faith, not having to put any effort into congregational growth, and not having to reach out to the world outside our walls, Christians are waking up from the American Cold-War Christendom. We're finally realizing it was a dream.
Returning to Normal
So I'm done with wringing my hands over the decline of Christianity in America. I'm also done talking about these statistics pointing to a new normal or returning to first century ways of being church. The church in America is not dying. As far as I can tell, faith in the United States is just returning to pre-McCarthy era levels, and we are still the most religious country in the West. Not a big deal.
But it will mean that we who are Christian have to remember how to be church--how to evangelize, how to faithfully deal with disagreements, how to present ourselves as communities worthy joining and actually being them. We have to learn how to talk about our faith, both with each other and with strangers.
Trust is the point here. After a generation, Christians can't trust culture to encourage people to come to church. Instead, we have to trust God and the movement of the Spirit in people's lives.
Since it is the Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps the church, that same Spirit is calling and empowering the church to be responsive to what God is up to in the world.
How do we pay attention to the Spirit calling us into relationships in our lives? How do we pay attention to the Spirit calling our congregations into relationship with other organizations? How can we restructure our congregations and denominations to be more nimble and responsive to the movements of the Spirit? How can we become more clear with ourselves about our Christian and denominational identities? How is God calling us to proclaim the gospel to the world?
God has not given up on Christianity in the United States. God, as always, is calling us back to faithfulness.