The decline of Christianity in America, and why I’m hopeful

Christianity is declining in America. 

New research from the Pew Research Center looks at the data and paints a picture of an even less Christianized future for America. 

In looking at religious trends and various demographics, Pew shows a downward of trajectory which could have Christians representing less than half of the US population in the year 2070. 

In 1972, Pew’s research says that 90% of Americans identified as Christians. That number was down to 64% in 2020. Pew’s research factors in people who have identified as Christians who have switched away from Christianity. Pew gives different estimates, and predicting future demographics is admittedly an inexact science. 

But the overall point remains the same that there has been a downward trend in Americans who identify as Chritians and there are not many signs that this trend is going to reverse course. 

Yes, that’s unfortunate and lamentable. I think there are negative societal ramifications which stem from that fact. But there are some reasons why I’m still hopeful and optimistic. 

From grassroots to grand cathedrals

I’ve been reading David Gustafson’s latest book “Gospel witness through the ages: a history of evangelism.” And I’m struck by how the early church in Rome had the opposite problem. In the early generations of Christianity (for instance, the third century), there was harsh persecution upon the church. Christians often had to meet in secret. By the end of the third century, it’s estimated that just 10 percent of Rome’s population was Christian. 

In 313, the western and eastern emperors (Constantine and Licinius) issued the Edict of Milan which gave Christianity legal status within Rome. 

Constantine’s personal religious convictions are a subject of debate. But what’s not debatable is that he was very friendly to Christianity. He made Sunday a day of rest throughout the empire. He exempted pastors and bishops from property taxes and worked to free Christian slaves. 

In 391, Emperor Theodisius made Christianity the religion of Rome, outlawed paganism, and closed temples to pagan gods. 

In less than a century, Christianity Rome went from being a small and persecuted minority to the state religion of Rome. 

I won’t get into another history lesson, but the same thing would happen in Europe for over a thousand years. Everyone was “Christian.”

But that’s the problem. You cannot force the gospel. You can force behavior. But you can’t force faith and belief. 

In America, we’ve had generations of cultural Christianity. Most people are not atheists. Most people believe in God. America has Judeo-Christian roots, and so it’s easy to attach to that and say you’re a Christian even though you might not believe that Jesus died and rose, that it is Jesus who is the Lord, and that it is Jesus who alone forgives sins (things which are essential aspects of the gospel). 

When Christianity dominates a culture, it becomes easy to be a Christian in Name Only. it becomes easy for people to be moral people without being born again believers. It’s easy to go to church (or at least be listed as a member of a church), without actually serving and ministering within the church. It’s easy to check the box. 

And so again, while I think it’s unfortunate that there’s been a decline in the church in America, I’m hopeful for a more authentic future of the church. I’m hopeful that American churches can have greater spiritual depth with more committed members. 

As it becomes easier for a person to acknowledge that they’re not a Christian, I’m hopeful it’ll become easier to know where people really are, Spiritually. There won’t be the same pressures to go through the motions or put up a front. If someone doesn’t believe in the gospel, as a pastor, I’d rather know that and go from there than have them feel like they need to pretend to be more religious than they actually are. 

It’s a season which will also have its challenges. The American church has gotten too lax on personal evangelism. Perhaps it was easier to write that off as not being important when it was thought that most people were Christians. But Christians are becoming the cultural minority and there’s work to be done. 

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