A poll has just come out that indicates an 8% drop in the number of people in the United States self-identifying as Christians. Over the last seven years, the number has dropped from 78.6% to 70.6%. That is a dramatic shift. It is somewhat mitigated by understanding that the drop was in the peripheral of those described as Christian, but that is not much solace, however, because along with the drop in number, there is a new periphery. It is not just that there were some nominal Christians who left the church, others have become more nominal, too. What has not changed much is the percentage of Christians who are the “committed core.”
Where has this come from? There are several factors, and some lessons to be learned from some of our overseas partners who are actually increasing the percentage of convinced Christians in their societies.
First Factor: Secular Sacred Divide
It is not right, of course, but many people believe that there is, or should be, a divide between spiritual life and “real life.” It comes in several different stripes: separation of Church and State; gnosticism in which only the “spiritual” is valued and the “secular” dismissed; and what I might describe as the false, but widely held, position that “religion is a private affair.”
This has caused many evangelical Christians to eschew voting. In fact, in the USA only 24% of self-described evangelicals vote in elections. If they brought their world-view to the ballot box there would be an entirely different cadre of leaders!
I will never forget the vestry meeting at which someone (well intentioned, of course) said, “We have a lot more needs to meet within the four walls of this church before we start dissipating resources out in the world.” In fact, we are called to be balanced in reaching Jerusalem (those in Church), Judea (those like us who are nearby), Samaria (those who are physically nearby, but are from a different culture), and the ends of the earth (which is relative, of course, but it generally means separated both by different culture and by distance). Balance may not be easy, but that is what faithfulness requires.
Incessant Criticism of the Church
It is remarkable how thoroughly the media has rejected the work and witness of the Church. Of course, we have been off base sometimes, but a great deal of good has been done and continues to be done by the Church. Thinking back for many years, I cannot remember positive mainstream media references to the Church at all. Criticism is rampant. Even worse is a terrible misunderstanding by the world of what the purpose of the Church is. This morning on the radio I heard a “news analysis” in which the two commentators agreed, “What needs to happen is the church needs to get back to its primary purpose of providing care for people like food and shelter and get away from saying anything “political.” Of course, “political” can mean anything that impacts everyday life. The current culture wants to silence any word from the Church that runs counter to the current narrative of diversity and tolerance. The fundamental purpose of the Church of worshipping God, saving sinners, and bringing people into transformed lives of spiritual abundance is lost on much of the population. Part of that is because we have not done a good job of articulating the Gospel.
There is another factor. That is the lack of critical thinking among the general population. If they hear enough times how unloving Christians are, many will accept that position. Among 18-25 year olds, I read a survey that said that more than 70% believe Christianity has been a “net negative influence” in the world. I’m sure that they don’t connect Christian faith with education, health care, and colleges and universities; yet the overwhelming number of schools, universities, and hospitals in North America were founded by the Church.
Far too many Christians have been inadequately formed as disciples. Rather than a robust formation process, “The Faith” is approached as though it is a cafeteria where individual doctrines or dogma can either be embraced or rejected. Take, for example, the issue of sexuality. Historic norms of reserving sexual intimacy for within the bounds of the marriage of one man and one woman are often ignored, even among those claiming to be evangelical, committed Christians. There is not just a problem of same-sex intimacy, sexual intimacy outside marriage is rampant among heterosexual people. Sexuality is by no means the only problem. Materialism, self-centeredness, idolatry, and syncretism are just as problematic.
Inordinate Influence of Social Media Masquerading as Community
People today are inundated by volumes of information, but only a tiny fraction of it is of any substance. We know, for example, how people half way across the country like to prepare their coffee, but rarely does social media address substantive issues. It is as though the quantity of communication has replaced the quality of communication. Because there is a lot of volume of communication, the assumption is that it results in community.
Continued Rise of Paganism
A pagan world-view in which there is an attempt to describe the world as one in which there are no boundaries, or in which at least there should be no boundaries motivates many people. They are people of loud voice as well. This surfaces in the blurring of gender lines, attempts to obliterate marriage distinctions, and encouragement that pretty much anything goes in regards to behavior. Of course, there is a desire to stifle conservative speech or belief, while at the same time insisting on the right—even the need— for liberal philosophy to be spread. When Paganism prevails, there is sexual license, inordinate focus on creation displacing focus on God, and the assumption that all spirituality and religion are equivalent.
Even where there is a great deal of affluence, many people live under the influence of a spirit of poverty. They are incapable of seeing life through the lens of the abundance in which they live, and instead focus on what they do not have. For the spiritually immature, material goods are “more real” than spiritual things. That is actually not true, but it seems so to them.
By contrast, in those nations where the Church is impacting the culture, one can hear the Church’s voice addressing, not avoiding issues of everyday life. Politicians are not exempt from accountability, but are called to account from pulpits. Of course, to maintain credibility, church leaders have to live accountable lives as well.
While there are certainly differences of style and emphasis, there is a clear and unmistakable call for repentance from sin, and turning to Jesus Christ as Lord in the fellowship of the Church. There is little talk about denomination in the areas where the church is growing. It is a focus on Christ. There is even a celebration of the fruit that is being born through the lives of other Christians.
In areas like Northern Nigeria where Boko Haram is killing Christians, there are still people choosing to go out and seek to lead others to Christ. Even at the risk of their lives, they choose the difficult course because the alternative is unacceptable to them. They do not want anyone to be lost to Christ. Many are willing, like the seeds Jesus spoke of in John 12, “to fall into the ground and die that they might bear much fruit.” They do not seek to live lives devoid of painful circumstances. They choose lives of purpose and commitment regardless of the circumstances.
We have a lot to learn.
The Rt. Rev. Bill Atwood is Bishop of the Anglican Church in North America’s International Diocese and an American Anglican Council contributing author.