Curing Christians' Stats Abuse
What are the Concerns?
It's hard to generalize about American Christianity. The scene is just too diverse. But the most reputable studies give us certain indicators about particular denominations and the spiritual lives of U.S. adults. Mainline denominations are no longer bleeding; they are hemorrhaging. Increasingly, they are simply managing their decline. For evangelicals, the picture is better, but only in comparison to the mainline churches. Southern Baptists, composing the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., have apparently peaked and are trending toward decline. The same is true of most evangelical denominations. Only 2 of the top 25 Christian denominations are growing: the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). Both are Pentecostal.
Still, those worried about church decline are worried about data beyond the simple "more" or "less" numbers. The bigger concern is that people who identify themselves as Christians (and even evangelicals) do not evidence the beliefs historically held by Christians.
The Shape of Faith to Come, a 2008 book by Brad Waggoner (and based on a LifeWay Research study), evaluated seven domains of spiritual formation: learning truth, obeying God and denying self, serving God and others, sharing Christ, exercising faith, seeking God, and building relationships. It found that only 17 percent of Protestant churchgoers in America scored the equivalent of 80 percent or higher in those key areas of Christian discipleship. A full 57 percent of respondents said they had not once explained to another person in the past six months how to become a Christian. Then, over the course of the next year, only 3.5 percent showed a net increase in spiritual growth. These data are cause for concern, for sure. The church cannot grow if Christians are not actively discipling new believers.
American Christianity is not Dead
Reports of Christianity's demise in America have been greatly exaggerated. While the main thrust of good research does indicate that the percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians is declining, these data are not necessarily a bad thing. If three out of four Americans call themselves Christians, we are in big trouble. Three out of four Americans certainly do not live like Christians. Christianity becomes confused when everyone is a Christian but no one is following Christ. We evangelicals believe that most Americans do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
There is little doubt in my mind that the cultural expression of Christianity in America is declining. True, Christianity is losing its "home-field advantage" in North America. At the same time, some trends tell us we are seeing the growth of a more robust Christian faith and commitment. We are seeing some abandon nominal Christianity, and many others retain an authentic Christian faith. Christianity in North America is not going to die out in this generation or any other, even though it is going through an identity crisis of sorts.
In the meantime, bad and misinterpreted data must not convince us that organized Christianity in America is dead and gone. Facts are our friends. The facts tell us that the church in North America is struggling but also, in many places, growing. Discerning research can help us diagnose our condition. It may even help the church find strategic means to address the mission field right outside our doors. And ultimately, we all can agree that a declining church needs the unchanging gospel.