By now I am sure you have seen headlines or read news articles that trumpet “the collapse of Christianity in America”. These headlines are based on a new Pew Research poll on The Religious Landscape of America. In brief the poll finds that “the Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing.”
As a pastor, church-planter and missionary I read this survey with great interest and came away from my reading with three take aways.
The first take away is confirmation. This survey confirms what I see happening on the ground. I observed for some time now the death of cultural Christianity. Let me explain cultural Christianity by with this anecdote.
As a kid, when I would share my Christian faith with a friend I would sometimes ask them, “are you a Christian”? Inevitably my friend’s answer would be something like this–“Of course I’m a Christian, I’m not Jewish.” For most in my generation, you were a Christian because of the family you were born into, or because of the country your grandparents immigrated from. Christianity was a cultural identity not a conviction or a choice.
These days, in my hospice practice, when I ask a family about their religious demographic information it is more and more common for children of elderly parents to tell me, “well Mom was a Methodist, (or a Catholic, or Baptist, or whatever), but I really don’t identify with any particular religion.” This is what Ed Stetzer call “the nominals becoming nons”.
People who used to call themselves Christians but were “nominal” (Christian in name only) are now identifying themselves as “non”—not affiliated with any religion. The cultural identification with Christianity is becoming less and less the norm. The Pew poll is confirming the death of cultural Christianity.
Despite the bad news in the headlines of this poll, if you look at the Pew poll’s data on Evangelical Christians you will find reason for hope. According to the Pew poll, Evangelicals are Christians who (1) believe in the centrality of the conversion or “born again” experience in receiving salvation; (2) believe in the authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity; and (3) have a strong commitment to evangelism or sharing the Christian message.
As you look deeper into the poll you find that Evangelical Christians are actually remaining steady with only a 0.9% drop in total Evangelical Christians. The raw numbers on Evangelical Christians offer a hopeful picture. From 2007 to 2014 the number of evangelicals in America rose from 59.8 million to 62.2 million. In the same period the number of Americans who identify themselves as Evangelical Christians rose from 34% to 35%.
Alive Again Alliance is in the radical middle of the Evangelical movement. We are a Bible centered, spirit-filled, outreach oriented church. The fact that the branch of Christianity that is growing in America is the Evangelical branch should give us hope for our future and should cause us to recommit to and guard our Evangelical distinctives.
The last take away from the Pew poll comes from the demographic data embedded in this poll. The Poll finds two things that should help us focus our mission. The first is that the younger a person is the more likely they are to identify themselves as “unaffiliated”. Millennials (those people born between 1981 and 1996) identify themselves as “unaffiliated” 34% of the time. That means that one out of three young people have no religious connection. We are blessed at Alive Again with a significant number of Millennials for our size. This poll should focus us on leveraging our connection to Millennials and do whatever we can to reach the Millennials in our area, as it is the most under-evangelized demographic group in America. We also need to challenge the more religiously stable Baby Boomers and Gen Xers to see themselves as missionaries to the unreached people group of Millennials in our community. Do we really exist for those who are not here yet?
Finally, the poll finds that the church in America is becoming more ethnically diverse. The church is growing in every non-white ethnic group in America and declining among white Americans. This presents us with a two-pronged challenge. There is a challenge for the middle class white folk of Alive Again to a better job of reaching our neighbors. There is also a challenge for Alive Again to be a more welcoming place for people from different ethnicities and races than the majority of our congregation.
The difficult thing about both the generational focus and the ethnic focus is that this is most costly to us personally. It means being willing to adjust preferences such as worship style, teaching style, atmosphere, dress, and other stylistic choices which are sometimes the very reason we attend one church over the other. Are we willing to put aside preferences to reach people with the Gospel? The question needs to be asked again—Do we really exist for those who are not here yet?
What do you think? Do you find the Pew poll on the Religious Landscape in America encouraging, discouraging, educating, challenging? One thing is for sure. If you read the poll with missionary eyes, you will have a more clear call to be here in Toms River, planting a church, focusing our attention on outreach, inviting and sharing the Good News. This starts with you and me being a family of missionary servant, making disciples who make disciples. Let’s keep living the call.