Is America Becoming Less Christian?

Biola’s thoughts on a recent survey finding that America is on the path to being “less Christian.”

May. 4, 2009 By Jenna Bartlo

Within the past month, several news sources have reported “America is becoming less Christian” or declared “the end of Christian America” because of recent survey numbers suggesting there are significantly less Christians in America than there were twenty years ago. The survey published in March 2009, from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. has sparked discussion in religious and secular circles. However, how much faith (no pun intended) should we put in these pronouncements? According to John Mark Reynolds, Biola University professor and director of Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute, “every few years somebody announces that Christianity in America is doomed.” So is this survey the next “boy cried wolf” or is it really the end of a Christian America?

At a time when mega churches are booming with attendance growing from 200,000 in 1990, to 2.5 million in 2001 to more than 8 million in the latest survey — no doubt a result of the faltering economy and political instability — it would appear as though there are more Christians now than in recent years. However, according to the published survey, 75 percent of Americans call themselves Christian compared to 86 percent in 1990 — a fairly significant drop.

As reported on CNN.com, “Christianity is not losing out to other religions, but primarily to a rejection of religion altogether.” Secularity is the one area that has grown continuously in all regions of the country compared to religions that have either wavered or grown in specific areas.

Mark Silk of Trinity College, professor of religion, attributed the rejection of religion by some Americans to the rise in evangelical Christianity, according to CNN.com. In the 1990s, Americans observed religious/political alliances such as the link between the Republican party and Focus on the Family and that turned people away, said Silk.

“In an earlier time, people who would have been content to say, ‘Well, I’m some kind of Protestant,’ now say “Hell no, I won’t go,” said Silk.

Biola University associate professor of Biblical and Theological Studies Erik Thoennes agreed.

“Secularism in America is certainly on the rise. This is especially a concern among the younger generation where we have seen a shift away from their evangelical roots to identifying with those claiming no religion in particular,” said Thoennes.

In ARIS 2008, the percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent. With the estimated growth of the American adult population, that suggests an additional 4.6 million “Nones.” So how is it that churches continue to grow, while the numbers indicate Christianity is losing its believers?

According to Trinity College’s ARIS report, most of the growth in the Christian population occurred among those who would identify only as “Christian,” “Evangelical/Born Again,” or “non-denominational Christian.” The last of these is associated with the growth of megachurches. These groups grew from 5 percent of the population in 1990 to 8.5 percent in 2001 to 11.8 percent in 2008. Therefore, although secularism is on the rise and Americans are choosing “spirituality” or “none” over religion, the overall amount of Christians has only decreased by a slight margin.

Ninety percent of the decline comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, largely from mainline denominations such as Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians/Anglicans, and the United Church of Christ. These groups, whose proportion of the American population shrank from 18.7 percent in 1990 to 17.2 percent in 2001, all experienced sharp numerical declines this decade and now constitute just 12.9 percent.

But while mainline denominations continue to shrink, non-denominational evangelical Christians have held steady or even grown in number.

“A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United States,” said Silk.

Newsweek’s article, “The End of Christian America,” author, Jon Meacham, wrote “Let’s be clear: while the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, rumors of the dead of Christianity are greatly exaggerated. Being less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian.”

But this is equally troubling, said Thoennes, because liberal denominations are leading people to “vague religious feelings and getting in touch with one’s spirituality,” not leading people to Christ and his death on the cross.

“The post-Christian narrative is radically different; it offers spirituality, however defined, without binding authority,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Newsweek’s article. As Meacham wrote, there are more people now who call themselves spiritual rather than religious, and being spiritual is not about the death of God, but the birth of many gods.

According to Reynolds, this is not the end of American Christian leadership though. “Christianity that is anti-intellectual will die. Christianity that is in the grip of trendy intellectualism will remain irrelevant,” Reynolds said.

He believes America is on the brink to a great revival of traditional Christianity, in which Americans will reject the consumerism, secular or religious, that has marked so much of the last few decades.

“Christianity will survive and thrive, not because of anything people do but because it is true... If I am wrong and Christianity is to die in America, it will not die globally,” said Reynolds. “Christianity is always losing, just to something new. It never really loses.”

Written by Jenna Bartlo, Media Relations Coordinator. Jenna can be reached at (562) 777-4061 or through email at jenna.l.bartlo@biola.edu.

The opinion and viewpoint expressed in this article is that of the author. As a diverse community and within the context of our own theological convictions and community standards, Biola University encourages freedom of thought and expression by its faculty as first responders to relevant news and events.

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