By Haydn Shaw
We’ve been warned this will be the last Christian generation unless we do something now. That concerns many, quite understandably.
Ten years ago, my mother-in-law, who lives with us, gave me some material on how to teach a Christian worldview to our children. She told me she had heard someone claim that unless we do something drastic, most of our children will leave the church, and ours will be the last generation of the Christian era. She didn’t know if that was true, but she wanted to make sure we taught her grandkids everything they needed to know, just in case.
As we look at the state of the church, it’s fair to ask: Should we worry about the end of Christianity as we know it? Is the church heading toward a massive decline? Will we lose an entire generation?
I understand why people are confused—the statistics that get thrown around are complicated. We have heard that most people in the United States believe in God: about 80 percent are Christians, and 40 percent of them are born-again evangelicals. So we freak when we see outspoken atheists on the best-seller list and leading talk shows, and when we read that millennials are five times more likely than previous generations to have no religious affiliation. Everything in this paragraph is true, but it’s also misleading because it doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s why it’s helpful to walk through what the surveys show is going on with religion, Christianity, and the church.
Here’s the bottom line: It is not as bad as we’ve heard, but it was never as good as we thought. And Christianity is declining, especially with the millennials.
Why Christianity Won’t Disappear
(The Research Doesn’t Bear It Out)
First, the good news: It isn’t as bad as we’ve heard. Christianity is not going away.
People believe in God, and most still claim to be Christian. In 1944, Gallup asked Americans if they believed in God. Ninety-six percent said they did. When Gallup asked the same question in 2011, 92 percent said they believed in God. In addition, in 2014, 75 percent told Gallup their religious preference was Christian.
People still claim to go to church. Most people know Christianity has suffered a serious decline in Europe, and so some might think that church attendance in America has dropped by half in the last two generations. Instead, according to the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago, the percentage of people who say they go to church has been stable the past 40 years: 40 percent in 1972, and at 30 percent for the last two decades. Gallup’s numbers are even higher. In 2014, 53 percent of Protestants and 45 percent of Catholics claimed to attend church at least monthly. Eight in 10 claimed to attend occasionally.
The unchurched are less negative toward Christianity than we have heard. Many of the stereotypes Christians believe about the unchurched aren’t true. In 2014’s Churchless, the Barna Group reported on a survey that showed more than 25 percent of the unchurched are seriously interested in faith, and nearly two-thirds have generally positive perspectives on issues of faith.
Here’s more of what Barna learned about unchurched adults:
- 21 percent are born-again Christians.
- 23 percent say they are “absolutely committed” to Christianity.
- 26 percent say they are currently on a quest for spiritual truth.
- 41 percent “strongly agree” that their religious faith is very important in their life today.
- 51 percent say they are actively seeking something better spiritually than they have experienced to date.
- 62 percent consider themselves to be Christian.
- 65 percent define themselves as “spiritual” people.
We need to turn off the panic meters. When we hear scary statistics about religion, which often seem contradictory or confusing, we need to find a more accurate picture.
Why Christian Belief and Practice Was Never as Good as We Thought
(The Rest of the Story)
The good news is the decline of Christianity in America is not as bad as we have heard, but there is more to the story: Christian belief and practice in America was never as good as we thought, and it’s declining, especially with millennials. To better understand what’s going on, let’s go back through the three points of good news (above) and see what else the accompanying studies tell us.
1. Most Americans believe in God and claim to be Christian—but the rest of the story is many define God differently, and millennials’ numbers are lower than that of other generations.
Most believe in God and claim to be Christian, but that never has translated into an equal number of “believers” (75 percent) following the teachings of Christ or attending church (even at Easter or Christmas).
Emerging adults have been less religious than teenagers and older adults. While 94 percent of those over age 30 told Gallup they believe in God, only 84 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they believe. Pew Research indicates there has been little change in the last 40 years regarding how often younger adults pray (whether they believe in God or in the accuracy of the Bible) and how important they think religion is, but these statistics were not as strong as most of us thought.
2. People still claim to attend church—but the rest of the story is the number of evangelicals is much smaller than we thought, and Protestant numbers have dropped significantly.
It’s shocking to many that evangelicals are, at most, less than half of the 40 percent figure we have been hearing for years. More likely, we are less than a quarter of that number. That’s 22 million (7 percent) to 62 million (20 percent), rather than 124 million (40 percent). Where did the 40 percent number come from? That’s how many people throughout the years who have told Gallup they are “born again.”
How could surveys be off by that much? Because when people who claim to be born again are asked additional questions, many of them expose that their beliefs are different from those of orthodox Christianity. Gallup acknowledges the challenge of defining “evangelical” and “born again.” Some of their surveys try to better define “evangelical” by asking whether people believe the Bible is the actual Word of God or whether they have tried to encourage someone to believe in Jesus Christ. In 2005, Gallup found when they ask those who claim to be born again those same two questions, the numbers drop to 22 percent. In other words, the label “born again” has misled us into thinking evangelicals are a much bigger group than they actually are. So when people come across the more accurate numbers, they understandably freak out.
Not only are evangelicals a smaller group than most think, but Protestant influence in the United States has also declined. In the 1950s, 71 percent claimed to be Protestant, whereas in 2014, Gallup found only 50 percent did. Moreover, young people attend church less than the previous generations did at their age because they marry and have children later.
3. The unchurched are more open than we have thought—but the rest of the story is they are less open than they were previously.
Far more people claim no religious affiliation (called the “nones”), and researchers have found there is a growing frustration that evangelicals are rigid, rule oriented, and unloving to people who think differently than they do. The nones are not spiritual “seekers.” When asked, “Are you looking for a religion that would be right for you?” 88 percent answered no. Even though churches have long focused their outreach on bringing spiritual seekers into a worship service, the unchurched don’t see the church as positive, so they won’t come in the front door.
In Lost and Found (2009), Ed Stetzer reported, “More than 70 percent of the older unchurched seemed turned off by religion compared to 60 percent of the younger set.” He pointed out that we are racing against the clock, so to speak, before the unchurched young people lose interest in organized religion.
Because unchurched millennials aren’t spiritual seekers and aren’t as positive about the church, we can’t expect them to return to church in the same way the baby boomers did. That means if many of them do come, it will be through relationships, not through the front door.
Haydn Shaw is a minister who speaks to and consults with churches and religious organizations to help them grow. He is founder of People Driven Results and is a leading expert on helping different generations work together. This article is adapted from Generational IQ: Christianity Isn’t Dying, Millennials Aren’t the Problem, and the Future Is Bright, which he wrote for churches. Learn more about generations in the church and find free resources at http://christianityisnotdying.com.