Since we recently had a State of the Union address for the United States as a nation, I thought I would come alongside that discussion with a look at the state of evangelicalism in the United States. (You can read a much more detailed history of how we got to where we are in a previous series on evangelicalism).
Spoiler alert: it doesn't look good. However, even if we are in an ugly chapter, the story is not yet over.
The overview starts broadly; it will get more specific.
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1. The United States is becoming less religious.
The Christian block (Protestant and Catholic) has dropped from 75% to 59% since the Boomer generation. According to Barna, the atheist/agnostic/nones group has climbed from 20% to 35%.
For the first time in, well, ever, a higher percentage of people are "nones" than in any single category of Christian. Evangelicalism has dropped from a high of 30% of the population in the mid 1990s to around 23% now. According to Lifeway, a steadily increasing number of people believe the Bible recounts myths rather than truth - while still thinking it's accurate and authoritative, which is counterintuitive. Considering how much the teaching has been deconstructed lately, I suspect the apparently positive upsurge has to do with reinterpreting biblical teaching.
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Pew Research Center has charted familial church legacies. White protestants and evangelicals are not replenishing the church from their own families. Only 19% of Millennials stay in the evangelical fold. The Black Protestant legacy (which includes evangelicals) remains steady.
Population trends aren't helping. Evangelicals are now having children at the rate of 2.3 per woman, which is down from 2.7 in 1972 and close to the overall average in the United States of 2.1. The result is that the median age of evangelicals rose from 47 to 49 in just seven years (2007-2014).
In other words, between not having a lot of kids, a lot of kids leaving the church, and a growing antipathy or hostility toward Christianity, churches - and this clearly includes evangelicals - are getting smaller (as a percentage of the population) and older.
However, there is some good news.
One of the strongest demographics for broadening and deepening the Christian base in the United States is immigrants. Christians are overrepresented (in general) as a percentage of their home population among immigrants and refugees from overseas; as for immigrants from Central and South America, 88% are Christian, and in Central America as high as 40% are Protestant. Studies show this applies to illegal immigrants as well as legal immigrants.
First generation immigrants are remarkably observant when it comes to markers like church attendance and prayer; the longer they live in the United States, the more their passion fades. In other words, first generation immigrants raise the bar for the rest of us when it comes to religious observance. Ed Stetzer offers the following graph at Christianity Today:
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Generally speaking, evangelicals are not perceived well by the culture. Barna's research has made that clear.
Let's grant that not all of the criticism is fair, and that the church has never been about running a popularity contest. However, there was a time when the Christian and evangelical presence in the United States was taken seriously. The salt was salty; authority figures in the church carried weight culturally. If Gallup is correct, those days have passed us by.
If there is an upside, I think it's that a winnowing is taking place.
When it's no longer cool or socially advantageous to be affiliated with Christianity, those who remain will be serious. Political affiliation is already fragmenting the evangelical movement in particular (see my previous series); the overall jettisoning of religious will not increase the fragmentation, but I doubt it will reunite us either. The fragments will just get smaller.
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Can this trend be reversed?
After Jesus left, the early church faced an uphill battle. In AD 100, there were about 25,000 Christians. Yet by AD 300, there were about 20 million. Something made Jesus compelling; something motivated people to commit to following Jesus in spite of intense persecution. How did this happen?
Around 130 AD, Justin Martyr formalized what the early church was already noticing. He noted that the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ was exploding because followers of Christ were dong three very specific things: Believing, Belonging, and Behaving.
Christians were united by core beliefs about God, Jesus, sin, salvation, etc. Paul wrote, “I know (perceived; been made aware) whom I have believed (placed my faith in; trusted) and am persuaded (convinced; confident)...” (2 Timothy 1:12). Over time, various creeds established this foundational orthodoxy (right belief). A simple google search of the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed are good places to start if you want more information.
Orthodoxy has relational implications. Truth is best understood and lived out in a relational context; the better (or worse) the Christian relationships in a person’s life, the better (or worse) opportunity biblical truth has to flourish.
We are rational and relational beings – we think and we feel. Truth was always meant to be given in the context of relationship so it sinks in intellectually and emotionally. Paul noted in one of his letters: “We cared so deeply for you that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Rodney Stark noted how this “sharing of lives” has looked throughout church history:
“Christianity revitalized life in Greek and Roman cities by providing relationships able to cope with urgent problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.” (The Rise of Christianity)Justin Martyr wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius and described the new Christian believers in this way:
"We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause."Since the ultimate example of Embodied Truth is Jesus Christ, true lovers of Truth will become more like Christ. Truth, like Jesus, needs to be accessible, knowable, and embodied.
I wonder if a lack of being embedded in the community/connected with our neighbors is one reason for the rising negative opinion of evangelicals. When someone's opinion of evangelicals is formed almost exclusively by the news, movies and social media because they have no close evangelical friends, it's in inevitable that the reputation of evangelicals will plummet.
But what if personal relationships are counterproductive? Well, that's why there is a third point .....
This is where orthodoxy (right belief) meets orthopraxy (right actions).
This is not “Behave!” like I would say to my kids. This is saying that just as Jesus embodied and lived the Truth, we should embody and live the truth. Our lives will mirror what our mind and our hearts have embraced. We believe that the love of God and others are the two commands that summarize the rest. What does that look like? Well, see the above quotes about the early church for starters. The community of Christ-followers looks compelling when Christians 'behave' - that is, when they embody the heart of Jesus.
Why don’t people find Jesus more compelling? Maybe it’s because we are missing one of three key ingredients. Otherwise…
- We believe, but we don’t help others belong, so we come across as jerks.
- We believe, and we seek to create belonging, but we don’t live consistently or well. We either drag down the ones we are trying to help, or we project hypocrisy as our lives don’t match our words.
- We create belonging, and we live well, but we have no beliefs that ground our faith, and we become no different than any other self-help group.
In a world in which truth is in short supply, community and relationships are so shallow and fleeting, and hypocrisy splashes across the headlines, our best witness for Christ will be full of truth, community, and integrity.