Christianity in America is in Decline
It probably comes as no surprise to hear that Christianity in America is in decline. It doesn’t take a sociologist to see that churches are less populated on Sunday mornings than they were in decades past. The thing is, the situation is worse than it appears. Let’s take a look at how bad the situation is, and how the Benedict Option can help. (Don’t know what the Benedict Option is? Read this.)
This article will look at several metrics of the health of the church in America:
- the declining number of Christians
- the public’s perception of religion
- trends of the youngest generations
- the actual beliefs of “practicing” Christians
- the state of churches in America
The overall picture shows that the situation is far more dire than at first glance.
The declining number of Christians
You might say, “Ok, the number of Christians is shrinking, but aren’t we still in the majority?” Well, yes. As of 2019, 65% of US adults identify as some manner of Christian.
So what’s the issue, then? Christians are still a substantial majority in America, right?
Don’t let that 65% fool you. Things are much worse than the 65% would lead you to believe.
The decline in the number of Christians might surprise people. While about 65% of Americans consider themselves Christians right now, just two generations ago in the 1960s (a blink of an eye in historical terms), over 90% of America’s population considered themselves Christian.
This is a decline of 25% of the population. What category, if not Christian, has this chunk of the population changed to? Many are now the “nones.” As in, those who answer the question “What is your religious affiliation?” with the answer: none.
As of 2019, “nones” account for 17% of the US population. With the addition of the 4% of atheists and 5% of agnostics, 26% of Americans are unaffiliated with any religion. (The remaining 9% are another religious tradition or “Don’t know/Refused to answer.”).
Maybe you are saying to yourself:
“Sure, the decrease from 90% to 65% is a significant drop in the number of Christians. But, since 65% of the country is Christian, we are still a substantial, influential majority.”
Keep reading to see why 65% is a deceptive figure and is not something that should put you at ease.
People don’t trust religion
The first warning sign for the future of Christianity in the US is the growing distrust of the church and organized religion. The number of people who have a “great deal” of trust in “the Church or organized religion” has fallen from a high of 68% in 1975 to a current low of 38%.
Compare 38% trust in the Church to 74% trust in the military or 67% trust in small business, the two most trusted groups.
Let those numbers sink in. Twice as many people trust in the military than trust in the church or religion. And nearly twice as many trust in small businesses.
And what about the rest of that 65% of America that considers themselves Christian? Only 38% of the country said they greatly trust in the church or organized religion. So, do nearly half of Christian Americans not trust the church?
The one fact we must take away from this data point: People are not going to join a church they do not trust.
The news does not get cheerier when looking at other metrics.
Younger generations are even less Christian
When you look at the Christianity of younger Americans, the numbers are trending worse than older generations. Yes, 65% of Americans in total identify as Christian. But only 49% of Millennials identify as Christian. And the percentage of religiously “unaffiliated” Americans jumps from 26% of the entire population to 40% of Millennials.
Could the situation be even more dire among the youngest generations? Gen Z Americans are only now reaching their 20s, so it will be a few more years before we can know their trends. But the preliminary data does not look promising.
Hope for a rebound?
Historically, there was a recurring trend. Many young people would stop practicing their faith while in their 20s, only to return to the church in their 30s once they settled down with a family of their own. Right now, it appears that Millennials are not returning to Christianity like prior generations.
Let’s really hammer home the fact that people are leaving Christianity and are not returning. Consider that 22% of all Americans who were raised Christians no longer consider themselves Christian. In other words, almost a quarter of people who were raised Christian in America left the faith and have not returned.
For the time being, the decline of Christians in the US is slowed by the faith of older generations. When we look at the youth to see the future of American Christianity, the numbers are shockingly low. If these numbers hold, the rate of decline of Christians will only increase.
The caveat is that these statistics have assumed that everyone who is claiming they are a Christian on a survey actually lives and believes like a Christian. Is this a smart assumption?
Of course not.
Exactly How Christian are the “Christians”?
There is evidence that the overwhelming majority of American Christians are not holding to historic, orthodox Christian beliefs. This section looks at Bible use, holding biblical worldviews, and the non-Christian beliefs of professing Christians.
First, only 24% of US adults are “Bible Centered” or “Bible Engaged.” This is defined as those who:
“Interact with the Bible frequently. It is transforming their relationships and shaping their choices.”
Basically, this is people who allow the Bible to shape their lives and their relationships. In other words, precisely what all Christians are supposed to do.
Only 24% of Americans are centering their lives around the Bible, yet 65% of Americans profess to be Christian. What are the other 40% of professed Christians centering their lives around, if not the Bible?
It gets worse. Barna Research, a major Christian polling and research group, reports that only 17% of Christians who consider their faith important and attend church regularly actually have a biblical worldview!
“Barna defines “biblical worldview” as believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today.”Barna Research
Note, also, that 17% is of self-professed practicing Christians. When looking at all adults, the percentage of Americans who follow a biblical worldview is in the single digits.
Barna also highlights how many self-professed practicing Christians hold views that are wildly incompatible with Christianity. For example:
- 28% of practicing Christians agree strongly that “all people pray to the same god or spirit, no matter what name they use for that being.”
- 32% of practicing Christians believe that “if you do good, you will receive good, and if you do bad, you will receive bad.” That is basically the Hindu idea of Karma.
Unfortunately, there are many more examples of these wildly unchristian beliefs held by professing Christians. And when looking at younger generations, an even higher percentage of Christians hold them.
If only 24% of Americans are Bible-centered, and only 17% of practicing Christians have an orthodox biblical worldview, you must ask the question:
Does it even matter if 65% of Americans claim to be Christian?
Answer: Probably not.
Church attendance, conversions, and tithing are struggling.
Lastly, churches and the practices required to maintain them are decreasing. Here are some data points:
- 60% of Protestant churches plateaued or declined in attendance during 2018.
- Over 50% of churches saw fewer than 10 people become new Christians during 2018.
- Only 15% of Americans tithe between 2% and 9% of their income.
- Only 5% of Americans tithe 10% or more of their income.
In summary: a majority of churches have stopped growing or are shrinking; a majority of churches saw less than 10 new Christians join their church in 2018; only 20% of Americans tithe at least 2% of their income.
These are trends that will soon bear the bitter fruit of failing churches.
There is a secondary consequence of falling attendance and tithing. To attract more attendees, many churches have relaxed, altered, or worse, abandoned orthodox Christian teaching in an attempt to stay relevant to younger generations.
The decrease of attendance, conversion, and tithing will result not only in closed churches but in a weakened orthodoxy in many churches that do manage to stay open.
How the Benedict Option can help
So, here we are.
- The church has lost 25% of the American population over the last two generations.
- People do not trust the church.
- Younger generations profess Christianity at a lower rate than older generations and aren’t returning to the church.
- Christians aren’t reading the Bible nor holding to a Christian worldview.
- Attendance, conversions, and tithing are down.
- Churches are abandoning orthodox Christianity to attract new attendees.
Christianity in America is clearly in decline.
Don’t feel hopeless. Christians should always have hope because God is Lord of all. But that does not mean that we can sit back and do nothing. God wants us to be His hands and feet. The Benedict Option is one of the tools that Christians can use to spread God’s kingdom.
The Benedict Option helps combat the effects of declining church involvement in several ways.
First, the Benedict Option makes worshiping communities more stable. Living the BenOp is about making a commitment to a Christian community for the long haul, not merely consuming the product of a local church until a more enticing, upgraded version comes along. Strong worship communities don’t have to fear falling attendance or respond by slackening their teaching.
Second, the Benedict Option is about deep community, a depth of cooperative relationship a weekly small group or Bible study cannot achieve. Members of BenOp communities commit to patterns of long-term intentional living with fellow Christians. It takes time and commitment to get to the deep relationships Christians should be striving for.
Not competing with the world
Third, the world’s bells and whistles are very enticing. Our churches have responded by attracting visitors on the same terms consumerist culture attracts – new, flashy, and little obligation. The Benedict Option reverses these priorities – eternal truths, quite contentment, and commitment to the Body of Christ. Everyone benefits when the church does not have to continually compete with the allure of the world.
Our next step: BenOp community
The world will never stop enticing people away from the faith, and Christianity will continue to decline in America. But the Benedict Option combats the pull of the world by providing practical tools to create communities of deep discipleship and support in Christ, equipping Christians to be in our world but not of the world.