As the American Church Shrinks, Global Christianity Can Point the Way Forward
Fewer Americans are going to church.
That’s the conclusion of a new study from the American Enterprise Institute. The share of Americans who attend church regularly is now less than one-in-four, while the share who never attend has increased by eight percentage points—just since 2018.
It’s the latest in a series of headlines suggesting that (numerically, at least) Christianity is on the decline in the United States. In less than fifty years, Christianity will likely no longer be the majority religion in the United States, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.
Moreover, the last decade has seen more young adults in particular leave organized religions than any time before. In terms of the church in the U.S., a 2020 Barna survey noted: “The share of practicing Christians has nearly dropped in half since 2000.”
“People are giving up on Christianity,” writes Daniel Silliman of Christianity Today. “They will continue to do so. And if you’re trying to predict the future religious landscape in America…the question is not whether Christianity will decline. It’s how fast and how far.”
For several years now, the three of us have had a front row seat to the changing dynamics of the American church, especially from the perspective of predominantly white evangelical institutions. We’ve been grieved by the conditions cited by those leaving, including scandals that have marred the church’s reputation, high-profile leadership failures, and partisan divisions. We’ve watched people we know and love walk away from churches or the Christian faith altogether, with many giving no indication they plan to return.
Nevertheless, we’ve chosen to face these realities not from a doomsday perspective, but from a hopeful one. In our book Inalienable: How Marginalized Kingdom Voices Can Help Save the American Church, we bear witness to a phenomenon impacting the American Church that’s rarely captured by surveys and articles focused on decline: the exponential Christian growth happening in the Global South.
Whereas roughly a century ago 82 percent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and North America, 70 percent now live in the Global South. Today, Africa is home to more Christians than any other continent. Latin America is not far behind, with Spanish now the most common language spoken by Christians globally. If the growth of U.S. Christianity continues slowing and China’s churches keep growing, China could soon become the country with the most Christians in the world.
In fact, we believe the Church in Africa, Latin America, and Asia could actually save the U.S. church, if American Christians are willing to assume a posture of humility and learn from our brothers and sisters from around the world.
If the U.S. is no longer the center of global Christianity, it could actually be good news for the American Church. Why? First, because global Christians are now both partners and leaders in the missionary task formerly thought of as moving one-directionally “from the West to the rest.”
Second, global Christians coming to the U.S. have much to offer our declining (and often distracted) churches to help us refocus on a genuine biblical faith less fettered to purely Western culture. As sociologist Stephen Warner notes, “The great majority of immigrants coming to America are Christian, so immigrants do not represent the de-Christianization of American society but the de-Europeanization of American Christianity.”
One of the most opportune ways the American Church can experience this impact is through interacting with immigrant Christians, who often bring a renewed focus on the core, inalienable truths of the Christian faith.
Hau Suan Khai, a former refugee from Myanmar who has become a pillar in his local American community, describes how he and several of his other Burmese friends were taken aback after arriving in the US and observing the current state of the American Church:
“We did not think America was 99 percent Christian; we thought it was 100 percent Christian. America has “In God We Trust” on its money, obviously referring to the God of the Bible. We thought every city would have many churches all filled with people of all ages. Yet in all the American churches we first visited,we saw mostly elderly people. I remember in the first church where we witnessed this, the question came into my mind: Where are the younger adults? Are they in a different part of the building? One of my first surprises was learning they were not in the building at all.”
Thankfully, Khai and many immigrant Christians like him have not given up on the American Church. They still have hope for it, believing they are called to be part of the solutions we desperately need. “There was no way for us to come to America unless God had a plan,” Khai maintains. “God brought thousands and thousands of us to America, we believe, to help revitalize American churches. If we cannot influence churches from your pulpits and leadership positions in this generation, for now we can do it with our character—how we live in our workplaces and neighborhoods.”
As American Christians wrestle with our waning percentages and influence, we believe the voices and presence of global Christians represent hope for a new, more faithful direction for the American church. This is true both of those who have emigrated to the U.S. and those to whom we can be connected today via virtual spaces, in ways unimaginable decades ago. The question for many of us American-born Christians is: Will we have the humility and openness to receive their influence?
Eric Costanzo is lead pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Daniel Yang leads the Church Multiplication Institute at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. Matthew Soerens is the U.S. Director of Church Mobilization and Advocacy for World Relief. They are the authors of Inalienable: How Marginalized Kingdom Voices Can Help Save the American Church.
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