Fakers who don’t go to church are just giving up the pretense.
A new Pew Research Center survey found the Christian share of the American population declined almost 8 percentage points from 2007 to 2014. Drawing from this point, many continued their breathless claims that the Christian sky is falling.
Rather than predict the impending doom of the church in America, this latest study affirms what many researchers have said before. Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified. Churches aren’t emptying; rather, those who were Christian in name only are now categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction and engagement.
Gallup recently found that weekly religious attendance as a percentage of the U.S. population is about where it was in the 1940s — hardly a statistical collapse.
Simply put, the strains of a funeral dirge aren’t being played at the graveside of American Christianity because there is no body for burial.
Evangelicalism is growing
Yes, you read that correctly. Evangelical Christianity is growing in America. From 2007 to 2014 the number of evangelicals in America rose from 59.8 million to 62.2 million, according to Pew.
While it should be noted that evangelicals’ share of the overall U.S. population dropped by 9 percentage points over the last seven years based on denominational affiliation, the percentage of U.S. adults who self-identify as evangelical or born-again rose from 34 to 35% over the same period of time. Don’t miss that: More than one-third of Americans call themselves evangelical.
And despite what many are saying, evangelicals are attending church more than ever. The latest (2014) General Social Survey found that in the last two years of the study a greater percentage of evangelicals are attending church than in any other time of the last 40 years. Currently, 55 percent of evangelicals attend church at least nearly every week.
This is part of the growing “evangelicalization” of American Christianity in which the church in the U.S. is increasingly taking on the attributes of evangelicalism. According to Pew, half of all Christians self-identify as an evangelical or born again.
So why is Christianity shrinking?
If evangelical Christianity is growing, or at the very least remaining steady, why is Christianity as a whole shrinking and why are those who claim no religious affiliation increasing at such a rapid rate? In short, nominals — people whose religious affiliation is in name only — are becoming nones — people who check “none of the above” box on a survey.
Those who value their faith enough to wake up on Sunday morning and head to their local church are mostly still going. What I have described as “convictional Christianity” will continue. Those who say their faith is very important to their lives are not suddenly jettisoning those beliefs to become atheists.
According to Pew, unaffiliated Americans grew from 16 to nearly 23% in the last seven years. That increase largely came from the ranks of Catholics and Mainline Protestants, religious traditions with high numbers of nominals. Among adults who claim no religious affiliation, 28% were raised Catholics, while 21% grew up Mainline.
Many of these who have been labeling themselves as Christians are starting to feel free to be honest about their religious affiliation, or lack thereof. Jewish, Muslim or Hindu are no longer the only religious survey options passed over for many Americans. Christianity has joined the list.
So, the number of people who are practicing a vibrant faith is not fading away, quite the contrary. Christianity and the church are not dying, but they are being more clearly defined. Both the recent Pew and GSS data affirm this clarification should only continue.
Nominal Christians are becoming the nones and convictional Christians remain committed. It is fair to say we are now experiencing a collapse, but it’s not of Christianity. Instead, the free fall we find is within nominalism.
That’s the real story of this data and one that needs to be told. The nominals are becoming the nones.
Ed Stetzer is the executive director of LifeWay Research.