Jeff Haanen

The Pew Research Center recently published an alarming report: “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Since 2009, the religiously unaffiliated have risen from 17% of the population to 26% in 2018/19.  And today only 65% of Americans identify as Christians, down from 77% only a decade ago.

The report points out that there’s a generational dynamic at work as well. A full 8 in 10 members of the Silent Generation are Christians, as are 3/4 baby boomers. Yet today, less than half of Millennials call themselves Christians, and 4/10 are religious “nones.”  That is, when asked about their religious affiliation, they respond “nothing in particular.” There are now 30 million more “nones” in America than there were just a decade ago.

Sobering stuff. Whether it be church attendance or looking at the religious preferences of Whites, Blacks or Hispanics, the decline of Christian belief in the past generation of Americans seems to be picking up steam.

Some push back on this thesis. Glenn Stanton, a conservative researcher at Focus on the Family, claims that news headlines about the “dying church” are overblown. He accurately points out that the greatest numerical declines are in mainline churches, and that the numbers of evangelical Christians are holding strong. Indeed, even Pew reports that though the overall number of Protestants among US adults has declined from 51% in 2009 to 43%% in 2019, among Protestants the number of evangelicals has grown in the last decade from 56% to 59%.

Stanton and others point out what is happening is that the “middle is falling out.” That is, those who used to be nominally Christian now feel no need to say they’re a Christian of any sort when a pollster asks. So many of these people get lopped into the “nones” category but are not necessarily atheist or agnostic. “Nones” is a complex category of those without strong ties to a denomination or faith tradition.

Historically American exceptionalism held true in religion. As other rich countries secularized rapidly, especially in Europe, America didn’t follow suit. But since 1990, we now have about 30 years of data that says belief is indeed falling in the US.

What sense should we make of this data?

Though I wouldn’t use the word “crisis,” (the internet doesn’t need one more alarmist article), I would like to lay out three problems that confessing Christians need to pay attention to as belief recedes in America.

(1) The politicization of faith is reshaping how Christians express their faith in public and how they’re perceived by the broader culture.

As I read over these Pew research findings, I ask, “How would many of the Christian young adults in Denver respond to the question: ‘Are you a born-again evangelical?’”

My guess is that many wouldn’t claim the term “evangelical” because the word now has political and fundamentalist connotations. Though we work with many who would consider themselves theologically conservative, they’re also culturally-engaged, justice-minded, and have found themselves exiled from either the political right or left. As pastor Tim Keller has eloquently said for many, historic Christianity doesn’t fit into a two-party system

Senior writer for The Atlantic Derek Thompson makes a convincing case that a few historical factors led to American losing its faith. One was the moral majority, led by figures such as James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, aligned Christian belief with Republican politics. Another factor was that after 9/11, all religion got lopped together with extremism. Either way, there are millions that now hold orthodox Christian belief, but don’t align with either the right or the left.

I see this every day at Denver Institute. As a matter of fact, my guess is that one of the main drivers of event attendance is that there’s a growing number of Christians (and, I’d argue, a good number of the “spiritual but not religious”) who want to distance themselves from political narratives about faith, but desperately want to find “their tribe.” They want to find others who care about faith and our culture, yet don’t find those communities either in their churches or their places of work. They’re looking simply for like-minded friends.

As old alliances peter out, a growing number of philanthropists, investors, business leaders, and other professionals are embracing vocation as a way of being public about faith without being political. Teaching students, attending to patients, serving clients, and fielding customer calls can be every bit as much a public act of faith as voting.

Indeed, I’d say daily work is becoming central to a growing number of Christians who are committed to living out the Lord’s prayer “May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” yet are uncomfortable with the categories placed on them by a shifting culture.

(2) The retreat from culture sounds appealing…but it isn’t a real option.

In the past several years, some have suggested that attempts to renew culture should be abandoned completely and we should prepare for a new dark ages, in which Christian communities can only preserve the knowledge of the truth – like medieval monastic communities – as culture caravans into an abyss.

Yet my conviction is that a retreat from culture undersells how deeply connected we are in the modern economy. For every meal we eat, for every message we send, for every mile we drive, we need each other.

We can’t fully retreat from culture. Culture is the air we breathe.

The world we live in influences our emotions, our thoughts, and our dreams. And by not talking about these realities in our faith communities (or by simply turning up the worship music and smoke machines) what generally happens is that we unthinkingly adopt the norms of the world around us.

Which leads me to my last point….

(3) The accommodation to a secular culture poses a real problem for Christians.

Why is it that social media and news is filled with such vitriol, including many who profess Christian belief? Ed Stetzer, a missiologist at Wheaton College, has helped to sort this one out for me in a single image.

The short of it: Fifty years ago, the broad cultural consensus on social issues had a Judeo-Christian consensus. This included “convictional Christians” (those who really believe the doctrines of historic Christianity) as well as congregational Christians (occasional church attenders) and cultural Christians (those who don’t attend church by just call themselves Christians because of family or tradition.)

Today, that consensus has drastically shifted. Today the broad cultural consensus is secular on most social issues, and those who hold traditional views feel backed into a shrinking corner. Hence, you get many self-professed Christians who seem to be among the most combative voices out there, hoping to recover a nostalgic vision of American Christian that supposedly peaked in post-WWII America.

Here’s what I think. There are many Christians who are searching for a way to be hopeful yet not combative; who want to be faithful to the countercultural way of Jesus yet engaged with the world around them; who are among the many “Christians who drink beer” and are tired of the culture wars, yet are simultaneously deeply concerned about the world we live in.

Yet in my view, there are very, very few models for this kind of life.  If I work for a Fortune 500 company, what practices should I embrace, and which should I abstain from? What does faith look like in the immensity of modern health care? When has my faith become individualistic and consumeristic? How should I practice my faith in my family, community, or workplace? When have I accommodated to mainstream secular culture, and what on earth does it mean to be “distinctly Christian” in a pluralistic society? How shall Christians remain “activated” as followers of Christ during the week

In our post-Christian culture, we are no longer Nehemiah, trying to rebuild the walls around a once-great Jerusalem. We are now Daniel, looking for ways to be faithful to God in Babylon.

Actually, doing this requires hard thinking, faithful imagination, and robust communities of practice – communities that we’ve only just begun to build.

  • charles pettigrew
    11:21 AM, 30 October 2019

    I think the problem with the american church is that we don’t show our fellow americans what real christianity is. The american church is shallow, we don’t love each other and we don’t work together and if I as a christian struggle with going to church and be in church life, what do you expect nonbelievers to do, they stay away and look for alternatives

  • B.Bailey
    2:52 PM, 30 October 2019

    “In our post-Christian culture, we are no longer Nehemiah, trying to rebuild the walls around a once-great Jerusalem. We are now Daniel, looking for ways to be faithful to God in Babylon.”

    I thought this was a great description of where we are at and well put. However, I wonder if the situation might more aptly be put as we are like Peter’s audience whom he writes to in 1st Peter. I read one pastoral job description for a job in a much more liberal part of the country, which read, “in this city, socially, being a Christian is not considered an asset”. There does seem to be a growing sense of “heat” for being associated with Christ in certain parts of United States. This will only grow over time.

    “Actually, doing this requires hard thinking, faithful imagination, and robust communities of practice – communities that we’ve only just begun to build.” Before I comment on what you mean here, I would like to understand what you mean here. What do you mean by faithful imagination? Or hard thinking? or robust communities?

    • jhaanen
      3:44 PM, 30 October 2019

      Yes, we assign Miroslav Volf’s wonderful article “A Soft Difference” to our Fellows. It uses 1 Peter as a framework for understanding the Christian’s role in culture. What I think is important about 1 Peter is that rather than assuming power, it assumes persecution. It assumes a pagan context and faithfulness to Jesus rather than trying to “take back culture.”

      Explaining faithful imagination, hard thinking, and robust communities would take another blog post….thanks for the comment.

  • Chris
    7:34 PM, 30 October 2019

    Overall, I commend you on a well written article. On point #2, while Rod Dreher’s, Benedict Option, is at times a bit shrill, I think it’s a bit of a mischaracterization to call it a “medieval monastic communities” approach, although he draws the name of the book from that tradition. I think he has rightly diagnosed how far down the road we have descended culturally. I think Dreher and I, to use Stetzer’s chart, would say the “future” is now. I think you are being overly optimistic of how much we will be allowed to participate in public culture. Right now, the next generation of convictional Christians are very close to being pushed out of many professions like law, medicine, education etc… I think we will be forced to become a ‘blue collar” church and we should be preparing our younger Christians for this reality.

    • jhaanen
      7:52 PM, 30 October 2019

      Good word, Chris. Yes, Dreher’s argument is more nuanced for sure. I think what makes sense is simply the book of 1 Peter, where we can and should prepare for persecution, but that doesn’t mean we should shrink back. The Christians in the early Roman empire certainly didn’t…but it did cost them. We, too, should be prepared for our faith to cost us something…and endure suffering (James 5:11).

      I might be overly optimistic….but as I look at my kids, the biggest challenge for the church is not persecution, but how much of the dominant secular culture we’ll adopt and take right into our homes, workplaces, iPhones…and hearts.

  • inLight Consulting, Inc.
    8:56 PM, 1 November 2019

    My apologies for not having the time to read every comment, but just in case no one mentioned it, J. Paul Nyquist’s Prepare is a good read on this subject.

  • John Hyde
    4:46 PM, 4 November 2019

    Not much of a regular “commenter” on posts like this, but appreciate the heart and thought put behind this enough, I wanted to encourage and add to the conversation:

    If we believe God has placed His people (the Church) in their context intentionally, I’m curious to continue to see what God is doing in our current context, as well.

    Similar to the way in which we saw an explosion in the Church’s relationship with God during the reformation, I can’t help but wonder if God is using our current Age of the Internet (or iGen) the way Luther was timed alongside of the gutenberg printing press, and it’s ability to disseminate information to the masses.

    Working in Tech, this has become something I think about regularly. What is the Church’s response to be to existing not only in a post-christian environment, but also in a post-smartphone world. Never before has the church had to so tangibly fight a world in which billions of dollars are spent keeping us glue to our screens.

    To connect the points, if christianity requires significant times of solitude and introspection, could the self-identifying “nones” come from those who have had their moments of self-reflection eaten up by the deafening/blinding experience of having the internet at your fingertips every moment?

    Thanks for the thoughts, Jeff, and for continuing to push the conversation.

  • David A Smith
    7:08 PM, 8 November 2019

    Separation from God is impossible. Creator God moves in, around and through all the individuals surveyed. This reality renders the value of making a tally by “tribe” (Christian, Other Religions, Spiritual…etc.) irrelevant. How do scorecards like this further the activity of God?

    The activity of God is ever changing and so it may be more beneficial to step back and take a fresh new look. The majority of 1st century devoted Jews who were expecting the activity of God to conform to their religious expectations entirely missed the surprising manifestation in Jesus. Are we today so focused on our traditional expectations of how God should act, that we too may be missing the huge surprising next revelation?

    So, it may be more important to actively watch and wait with full awareness and expectation as the few who recognized the activity of God in Jesus were. I wonder how helpful a tally of Jews, Pagans, and other 1st Century religions would have been, had that tally been taken in the 1st Century, and if that focus would have opened the eyes of anyone to the appearance of Jesus or helped anyone participate in the amazing activity of God?

    These are a few reflections that came to mind as I read your article and thought about other times we have heard various faith groups ask the question of whether their group was declining or growing. If there were a more beneficial question, what would that be?

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