Christianity in America is not dead, but …

Pew Research Center

It is predictable!  When the Pew Research Center releases a new poll on religion in America, gallons of virtual ink are spilled attempting to interpret the new data.  The assessments and the headlines vary considerably, sometimes wildly.  Even those who would argue that “the sky is not falling” leave us with a clear sense that all is not well with religion in America.


Southern Baptist researcher Ed Stetzer wrote a column for CNN in reaction to headlines like this one in the The New York Times:  “Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christian.” The headline for Stetzer’s article declared his disagreement:  “No, American Christianity is not dead.”


Stetzer helpfully clarifies that “Christianity” means different things to different people.


It’s helpful to statistically clarify Christianity in the United States into three categories—cultural, congregational, and convictional. The first two categories are nominal Christians—they identify, but do not shape their lives around the Christian faith.


Cultural Christians are the least connected — they call themselves Christian because of heritage or culture. Congregational Christians have some connection to a local church, but rarely attend. On the other hand, convictional Christians call themselves Christians like the other two categories, but they attend church services regularly and order their lives around their faith convictions.


If you read the headlines this week, you’d think the latter category is collapsing. But, that would be a sign of bad math, not an accurate reading of the situation.


About 70-75% of the U.S. population calls itself Christian, but about 25% of the U.S. population practices that faith in a robust manner. This includes, in order of size, evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants, and others.


Yet, the majority of people who use the term Christian, do so in a way that is different from their church-going and faith-driven friends. Think about it—your religious uncle and irreligious neighbor could both call themselves Christians, but mean different things. I am not deciding here who is and who is not a Christian, but I am saying that it means different things to different people.


So, what does this mean?


Today, we are seeing cultural Christians, and even some congregational Christians, now self-identify as religiously “unaffiliated.” Folks who previously marked “Christian” on a religious survey because they weren’t Hindu or Jewish are now choosing “none of the above.”


In other words, nominal Christians (cultural and congregational) are becoming the “nones.” That’s not all that is going on, but the nominals becoming the nones are a big part of it. How do we know? Well, math.


If, in a given time frame, people calling themselves Christian declined by a large percent (as in the Pew data) and those who are committed to their faith and church declined at a much slower rate, the numerical difference between all Americans who call themselves Christians, and those who are active and committed, is important to note.


As Pew’s Conrad Hackett explained, “people with low levels of religious commitment are now more likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated, whereas in earlier decades such people would have identified as Christian, Jewish or as part of some other religious group.”


Yet, while the nominals becoming the nones is a key to understanding the situation, it’s also important to know that the many of the convictional are remaining committed, particularly among the evangelicals.


Church attendance data and the level of religiosity are important here. Using Gallup’s numbers, church attendance is about where it was in the 1940s. What’s more, when we look at the General Social Survey, the best-known ongoing source of such data, we also find a rather stable, but slightly declining, percentage of the Protestant population attending church regularly.


So, there has not been a huge drop in Protestant church attendance. Over the past 40 years, according to the GSS, the share of Americans who regularly attends a Protestant church has only declined from 23% to 20%.


Stetzer argues that this decline results from nominal Christians leaving the church.


So, the big story is this: convictional Christians are remaining relatively steady with a slight decline. The nominals (cultural and congregational Christians) are often becoming the nones; and the sky is just not falling (unless you are a mainline Protestant).


There are challenges that face Christians, and we should not think all is just fine. These are sobering numbers. Thus, my point is not to say things are going well, but to point out what the data actually demonstrates.


If we measure Christian faith with a connection to Christian church, this is not a collapse of Christianity, but perhaps we are seeing an outbreak of honesty in how nominal believers respond to survey questions.


Columnist Ross Douthat takes a similar approach to Ed Stetzer in commenting on the Pew numbers.  After admitting that he specializes in a “certain pessimism” about the state of American Christianity, he offers three “qualifiers” that soften the “dire-seeming” data from Pew.  Then, he concludes with this admission:  “…for now, consider this … just an attempt to discern shades of gray and hints of silver in and around institutional Christianity’s darkening sky.”



Ed Stetzer’s “No, American Christianity is not dead” appeared on, May 16, 2015.

The Real But Overstated Decline of American Christianity” by Ross Douthat was published on his NY Times blog on May 12, 2015.




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