Is Christianity Shrinking in America? “Yes” and “No”

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It’s a common question asked by church leaders and laity: “Is American Christianity waning as our nation becomes more secular”? The statistics seem to support a “yes” answer to this question. I’ve been collecting data on this issue for over ten years. The surveys (more than fifty I’ve chronicled so far) reveal a disturbing, albeit unified, trend: Fewer people claim a Christian affiliation than ever before, and those who claim no religious affiliation are the fastest growing group in America.

Despite these statistics, a recent article argues that religion “continues to enjoy ‘persistent and exceptional intensity’ in America.” Glenn Stanton, writing at The Federalist, describes research done by scholars at Harvard University and Indiana University, Bloomington. These researchers have concluded that America “remains an exceptional outlier and potential counter example to the secularization thesis.” So, which is it? Is religion in America waning or enjoying “persistent and exceptional intensity”? Is the Christian Church shrinking or intensifying? The answer is: “both”.

To illustrate the situation, let me offer an object lesson. Rummage through your closet and find an empty shoe box. Bring it into your kitchen and find a pot that will fit in the shoebox (one that is about three-quarters the size of the box). Put the pot in the shoebox, and then search for the smallest teacup you own, or better yet, an espresso cup. Place this small cup in the pot. Now you’re ready to understand what’s happening to the American Church.

The Box
The shoebox represents everyone in America; believers and unbelievers, alike. If you’re a Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist or agnostic, you’re in the shoebox. This box represents 100% of our national population.

The Pot
The pot represents everyone who identifies as a Christian. All the different denominations of Christianity are represented by the pot. Right now, that pot is less than three-quarters the size of the box. The most recent surveys reveal the number of self-proclaimed Christians to be shrinking dramatically at about 1% a year. At present, about 70% of Americans identify themselves as Christians.

The Espresso Cup
As it turns out, many of the people in the pot who identify themselves in this way don’t actually know much about Christianity. A recent Barna Group study revealed that only 17% of Christians “who consider their faith important and attend church regularly actually have a biblical worldview.” The study cited by Stanton in The Federalist also found that only 40% of Americans say they have “strong religious affiliations,” even though many more claim a Christian identity. In addition, only 33% of our population describes the Bible as the “Literal Word of God”. So, who’s in the espresso cup? Those who claim to be Christians and actually know what Christianity teaches. “Espresso cup” Christians are strongly affiliated with the faith, attend church, believe the Bible, and have allowed it to shape the way they view the world. How large is the cup? It’s hard to say, precisely, but one thing is for sure: it’s only a fraction of the pot, and it appears to be a small fraction.

Now that we’ve assembled our object lesson, let’s use it to draw some conclusions about what’s happening (and may continue to happen) in America today. All the studies I’ve assembled agree: the pot is shrinking. Less people claim a Christian affiliation than ever before. They are jumping out of the pot and into the box.

At the same time, the scholars at Harvard and Indiana have highlighted something important: The espresso cup isn’t shrinking. There is a remnant within the church that continues to pursue their religious affiliation with vigor and purpose. Despite cultural pressures and the inclination toward secularization, this “core” remains a committed, albeit small, group. The pot is shrinking toward the size of the cup, as casual, less affiliated believers jump from the pot to the box.

There’s a lesson in this for those of us who care about the future of the Church in America. The more engaged and knowledgeable we are as Christians, the more likely we are to be in the cup, rather than the pot.  In fact, recent studies show that churches committed to teaching classic Christian principles (like the physical resurrection of Jesus, the efficacy of prayer and the reliability of the Bible) are far more likely to grow than churches avoiding such theological truths. Theology and rationality matter.

What’s more, the people jumping out of the pot, seldom identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. Instead, they simply claim no religious affiliation. This means they are still largely open to hearing a reasoned, accurate and articulate description of the Christian worldview. They were once interested in Christianity, and many remain interested in God. We still have a chance to reach them before they abandon their religious interests altogether.

Finally, the people who jumped out of the pot still know people in the cup. They used to attend church with us, after all. They are still our neighbors, our relatives, our co-workers, our children. We know them, and they know us. Who’s is better positioned to share the truth? If you’re reading this article and consider yourself an “espresso cup” Christian, it’s time to identify the Christians you know who are still in the pot, or have recently jumped into the box. Engage them, show them, teach them. Help them see why Christianity matters; why it’s true and how it has changed your life. There are more than enough people in the cup to change the size of the pot. Christianity may be shrinking, but it’s also flourishing. You and I can still make a difference.

(This article first appeared in the Christian Post)

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids, and Forensic Faith.

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