A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who identify their religion as “Christianity” dropped by eight percent from 2007 to 2014. This finding comes as no surprise to anyone living in the United States. Among Christian groups, the number of mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics dropped sharply, while the number of evangelical Protestants rose slightly. Most of the people who stopped identifying themselves as “Christian” now identify themselves as irreligious (or “unaffiliated”).
Various “experts” have given their opinion about the reason for the decline in Christianity in the United States. Political commentators tend to paint the decline as a political phenomenon, usually by claiming that conservative Republican Christians have turned people off to their religion by mixing religion with politics. One problem with this theory is that most of the decline has been among politically liberal Christian denominations, not among politically conservative Christian denominations. And politically liberal denominations are often as political as conservative denominations, if not more so. While it is a common fallacy for people to have a higher commitment to political principles than to biblical principles, it is also true that political activism can energize Christians who are genuinely defending their faith in public forums. Political commentators who blame the decline in the population of American Christians on political activism among conservative evangelical Christians are apparently only expressing their own distaste for the application of biblical principles in the sphere of public life.
An “expert” from the Christian Reformed Church who was interviewed on a local television station attributed the decline partly to the church’s failure to listen to what millennials want the church to be, and partly to the church’s failure to give sufficient attention to social issues. The problem is, mainstream churches have been trying for decades to reshape themselves in accordance with the culture, and the more they do this the more they lose numbers. In fact, while the ultra-contemporary church that does not even want to use traditional terms like “church” and “pastor” has had an appeal to a generation of people who grew up in traditional churches and did not like them, some surveys indicate that Christian millennials actually would prefer a traditional-style church. If a contemporary church looks just like a coffee shop or a bar, millennials don’t feel any sense of sacredness about it. As for the claim that a lack of focus on social issues is driving people away from the church, it is in fact the churches that focus the most on social issues who are losing the most members. This is because the gospel which Jesus and the apostles preached was not a social gospel, but was rather a gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins—a spiritual gospel. Churches which ignore or disparage soulwinning are inauthentic and are bound to die out sooner or later.
A columnist for the New York Times points to “low levels of Christian affiliation among the young, well educated and affluent,” and cites “economic development” as one of the causes for the decline in American Christianity. Here we may be on to something. Jesus spoke of the great difficulty of a rich person being saved (Matt 19:23-26), since the ultimate loyalty of the rich is usually to their money. In general, people who feel that they are able to meet their own physical needs, or to have these needs met by the government, tend to think that they do not need God. Education is certainly also part of the reason for the decline in American Christianity. The problem is not education in and of itself, but the atheistic, anti-biblical philosophies which are being force-fed to students at all levels of the American educational system. The more educated a person is in modern America, the less chance there is that he will still believe the Bible or attend a church.
It is no secret that the moral values in American culture are moving farther and farther away from the Bible. There is virulent cultural opposition to such biblical principles as the sanctity of life, sexual morality, modesty, male leadership, eternal punishment for the unsaved, and the exclusivity of salvation in Jesus Christ. There is a major push from the media, the government, and the educational system to make Christianity a religion that people just believe and practice in private, while acting and talking like everyone else in public. While every individual unbeliever is responsible for his own unbelief, the leading anti-Christian voices in America bear the greatest responsibility for pushing people away from the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. No man bears greater blame for the decline in American Christianity from 2007 to 2014 than the President of the United States, who has adamantly opposed biblical principles on such issues as abortion, homosexuality, the right of the Jewish people to control the land of Israel, the true nature of Islam as a violent and false religion, and many others. Mr. Obama identifies himself as a Christian, but seems only to criticize Christianity in public, while defending Islam and atheism. The Supreme Court justices and other judges appointed by Mr. Obama are also causing considerable trouble for American Christians. While the President has the lion’s share of influence in the country, there are many other leaders who may be blamed, such as the leaders of the nation’s major media outlets, who helped President Obama win two elections and continue to support his anti-Christian outlook. In addition, the Pew study documented the first-ever major decline in American Catholics, and surely some of the blame for this lies with Pope Francis, who seems to be transforming the Roman Catholic Church into a socio-political organization with little or no theological or biblical foundation. The mainline Protestant denominations are also becoming or have become socio-political organizations whose Christian religious aspect no longer seems necessary, and might even be counterproductive to their mission.
So who is to blame for the decline in American Christianity? Certainly not God, who has spared no cost to save the human race, and has offered salvation as a free gift. The American church has many problems, and so do American Christians. But churches and Christians have always had many problems. Ultimately the blame falls squarely on the individuals who reject God’s way of salvation, whether they profess to be Christians or not. Unbelievers are responsible for their own rejection of the Christian gospel. Romans 14:12 says, “Each one of us will give an account of himself to God.” The truth is, there have always been anti-Christian voices in American culture; the reason why they are now ascendant is that the majority of people in the United States are attracted to this message and approve of this message. If millennials and other Americans are leaving the church, it is not, ultimately, due to the failures of the church or of Christians; it is the unbelievers themselves who are responsible for their own deliberate actions.
Postscript: Society’s ongoing rebellion against Christ and His church is a great tragedy, but it is also a sign of hope, for the Bible predicts a great worldwide rebellion against God at the end of history, culminating in the rise of the antichrist (2 Thess 2:1-12, etc.). The antichrist leads man’s rebellion against God to its ultimate expression, after which Jesus will return to earth to judge the nations of the world and seize political power over the world. Christians ought to be encouraged by the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, knowing that the Christ’s return is drawing closer every day, and that God is still directing events in the world in accordance with His plan.
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What is declining is the percent of “Christians” who are willing to be affiliated with “the” church. The historical contingencies from 1500 AD to the present including changes in our “social imaginary” are the reasons Charles Taylor gives in his remarkable work, A Secular Age (winner of the Templeton prize) for the decline of religious affiliation. This question is very different from a more significant reality, the percent of those who have belief (in transcendence) and those who hold to unbelief (materialists) is unchanged. And a claim is now being made by leading social scientists that our culture is post secular. That is, the secularization thesis of the disappearance of religious belief does not hold. The social condition Taylor describes as “secularity” is different from what our cultural lens defines as “secular” and has been hypothesized by the secularization thesis to take place over time. Rather, today we have both belief and unbelief being contested in culture. There is positive news here and that is greater opportunity now that the secularization thesis is being challenged to openly share the gospel of faith in Jesus Christ. The negative news is the increasing erosion of orthodox belief (e.g., Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion).
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