There has been much discussion lately over a recent study published by the Pew Research Center reporting a rise of people of no faith (“the unaffiliated”) and the demise of Christianity in the U.S.
The numbers are humbling. The percentage of “unaffiliated” people rose to more than 22 percent from 16 percent in the last seven years, while the percentage of people who affiliate with Christianity has steadily decreased.
Catholic and mainline congregations have seen the sharpest declines with more than 3 percent losses.
A growing number of articles have arisen to flesh out the implications of this movement in America.
Some say the decline is a result of the lack of institutional loyalty, while others blame a loss of “traditional values” in the public sector.
Many are quick to point out that these trends are regional, and the statistics should be taken with a grain of salt: Christianity represents the largest religion in the world, and it is actually growing in continents located in the southern hemisphere of our planet.
In other words, Christianity is flourishing, just not the way we Westerners are accustomed.
Diagnosticians like Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, can’t help but see it otherwise.
He contends that Christianity is not dying, but “jettisoning” a type of faith too liberal to be called as such, one that promotes atheism in disguise.
“We do not have more atheists in America. We have more honest atheists in America,” Moore said.
The percentage of evangelical Christians who tend to be more conservative are stable if not in decline. The number of evangelicals only decreased by less than 1 percent, which seems to support Moore’s assessment.
The devil, as they say, is in the details.
For one, evangelicals have remained steady not because of growth – decline is decline whether it is 1 percent or 3 percent.
This trend is because evangelicals retain more children than other Christian subcultures.
The more children, the more folks can be counted among the religiously fervent.
Second, the growing level of immigrant and minority populations, who err on the side of conservatism, helps fill out the losses that evangelical churches would otherwise experience.
Third, an increasing number of mainline churches now consider themselves “evangelical,” as denominations fracture over liberal and conservative fault lines.
Fourth, studies show that growing churches tend to be evangelical mega-churches with founding pastors.
Saying that the decline of mainline churches is theological is actually besides the point because all small churches, evangelical and mainline alike, are declining rapidly.
Furthermore, people in evangelical churches are no more theologically minded than their liberal brothers and sisters in smaller, established mainline congregations.
It’s just that small congregations don’t have the programming and resources needed to combat the tidal wave of a consumerist culture that values large-scale programs.
No matter who is providing an assessment on the Pew Research results, the truth is somewhere in the middle of the conclusions.
I agree with Moore that Christians who are, in his words, “almost-Christian,” have rarely helped Christ’s cause in our nation. But I disagree with Moore’s caricature of mainline churches as the reason for decline.
Christian liberalism did not add to the faith’s decline. Rather, it failed to bring out the best of what Christianity has to offer in the last century of our nation’s history.
In early Christianity, the church grew from a few hundred people to millions of people by the fourth century (as many as half the population of the Roman Empire by some estimates) not because Christians were more traditional or conservative, but because they readily adapted to a culture that needed a type of hospitality only Christ’s Church provided.
According to Roman pagan philosophers at the time, Christianity’s hospitality was too liberal to take seriously: Christianity was egalitarian in its outreach and leadership. It did not enjoy prestige or privilege, and so was not a religion of honor.
And the religion included people normally marginalized in the ancient world – a liberal value if there ever was one.
Early Christians did not refuse to provide pizzas to people; rather, Christians opened their doors to all people.
The wave of Christian decline shouldn’t cause Christians of different theologies to turn on each other.
A large percentage of Americans view all Christians, no matter the denomination, as hostile, exclusive, prejudiced and out of touch with the rest of the world. This is the reason for decline.
All Christians have a choice to make.
We can circle the wagons and blame each other for our faith’s decline. We can blame it on the rise of secularism. Or we can take a look at our own failures and develop a fuller outreach program that is surprisingly inclusive, vibrant, creative and grace-filled in a culture that still longs for the type of joy and belonging that only churches can provide.
Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Vero Beach, Florida.