In the past decade, the number of people who call themselves Christians in America has declined by a dozen percentage points.
A new Pew Research Center study revealed that in 2019, 65% of Americans call themselves Christians. If that number sounds fairly high, brace yourself: in 2009, 77% self-identified as Christians, according to Pew.
For religious people, the trend is alarming. The headline to the Pew report is even more alarming: “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.”
The study found that the number of people who identify as Protestant stands at 43% in 2019. That’s down from 51% a decade ago.
Catholics suffered a smaller drop, although it was still a drop. The survey found 20% identify as Catholics this year, compared with 23% in 2009.
So if the number of Christians continues to decline, what’s going up?
It’s a group nicknamed “the Nones.”
Those so-labeled say they are atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular.”
The number of atheists doubled, though only going from 2% to 4% over the past 10 years. Agnostics also rose two percentage points, from 3% to 5%.
And the “nothing in particulars” went from 12% 10 years ago to 17% this year.
Pew refers to it as “America’s changing religious landscape.” Some pastors, I’m sure, would argue it’s not a change for the better.
But one wonders what’s causing fewer people to claim that they are actually Christian.
There’s another finding of interest in the study:
In 2009, regular worship attenders (those who attend religious services at least once or twice a month) outnumbered those who attend services only occasionally or not at all by a 52%-to-47% margin. Today those figures are reversed; more Americans now say they attend religious services a few times a year or less (54%) than say they attend at least monthly (45%).
Is that cause or effect? Are fewer people attending because they’re not identifying as Christian, or is the decline of attendance making fewer people feel they are Christian?
The study breaks data down further, and it’s all worth a look.
But what’s behind the change?
If you think about it, technology and our connected world should make it easier for people to “attend” worship services. Social media should allow people to more easily share their faith.
And a never-ending increase in new churches with a variety of styles and personalities should be attracting more people, not less.
I’ve written before about problems — particular volume — with more contemporary services designed to look like a rock concert.
More and more churches, it seems, are trying to act like “consumer churches,” offering all sorts of creature comforts — like coffee and donuts, book stores, and avoidance of passing collection plates — to make people feel more welcome and less judged.
In some ways, that’s not bad, especially if it’s getting more people in the door.
But if it is getting more people inside, and yet fewer people are attending, something is still wrong with what people are experiencing once the service begins.
I can definitely understand the “spiritual but not religious” movement. Especially when you attend churches that suddenly stop ringing true in living out the teachings they provide.
Maybe it’s time for churches to take a step back and do a bit of — pardon the expression — soul searching.
It’s churches, after all, who offer the greatest “good news” one can imagine. On some level, if they’re no longer attracting people with that news, it’s got to be on them, not those they’re trying to reach.