Lies, Damn Lies, and… Well, You Know

Evangelicals love statistics, especially negative ones. The way the church talks, one often thinks the sky is falling. According to “studies”, young people are leaving in droves, Christians are morally indistinguishable from non-Christians, and in all likelihood this will be the last Christian generation in America.

The problem with these oft-cited “studies” is that they simply aren’t true. It has often been remarked that we as evangelicals love poorly-conceived statistics – some articles here, here and here might be helpful places to start if you’ve never heard this critique. Recently, I spent some time fact-checking one of these claims – that “only four percent of the coming generation will be Christian.” While this immediately raised my eyebrows because I have some background in the area, a quick google search confirmed that this stat was everywhere. The problem is, it simply doesn’t reflect the facts. Coming out of this work, I thought I’d post an overview of some reputable statistics on where evangelicalism, and Christianity as a whole, actually stands on the American stage.

Let’s start with the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), one of the major national assessments of religious affiliation. ARIS, like many religious surveys in the last few decades, has noted an upswing in the non-religious (those who don’t identify themselves with major branches of Christianity or other world religions). Since this finding has gotten so much press, it is worth looking at in detail.

According to the 2008 ARIS, roughly 15% of Americans identify themselves in the non-religious category, up from 8.1% in 1990. This is certainly a noteworthy increase, and a significant trend in American culture. What’s more, since the age demographics for non-religious identifiers skew toward the younger age brackets, it seems reasonable that this group will continue to grow.

However, is this Christianity collapsing in one generation? Hardly. According to ARIS’s own projections, assuming that the pattern continues, in 20 years the “nones” will make up around 25% of America’s population. A substantial figure to be sure, but hardly the collapse of the religious landscape as we know it. We would have to extrapolate out several generations just to reach the point where Christianity is no longer the majority religious identification. And as the cartoon above reminds us, that sort of extrapolation is always problematic.

Things get even more interesting when we ask who these “nones” are. The assumption many evangelicals seem to have is that the stat means that 15-16% of Americans are atheists. Not so. The above ARIS link breaks down the religiously unaffiliated by a number of metrics, most interestingly by religious beliefs. According to their polling, 27% of the non-religious believe in a personal God, and 24% more in a probably-not-personal higher power. When you also factor in those “not sure” or who refused to answer, only 7% of the “nones” are sure there is no God (atheism), with another 19% claiming there is no way to know for sure (agnosticism). By this metric, only 4% of America is in the atheist/agnostic category. Even more intriguingly, only 11% of respondents self-identify as atheist/agnostic, putting them below 2% of the population.

This isn’t to say that the upswing in those not identifying with a certain religion is a good thing, but it does put serious constraints on how we as Christians should talk about the trend. It also means that there are many people in the non-religious category who are open to Christianity, which I’ll touch on more below.

Things get even more interesting if we introduce another set of metrics – those of religious conversions and who is actually making them. Below is a graphic of data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, another major national study (click on it for a full-sized version). At the top of the chart is the religion people identify as what they were brought up in; at the bottom is that which they self-identify as holding as adults. Take a minute to look at the movements; I’ll discuss them below.

One of the significant questions which evangelicals should be asking is which kinds of Christianity are declining. Granted, we shouldn’t rejoice in our neighbor’s misfortune. However, we should also realize that “Christianity” in America is larger than just the evangelical church.

What do the Pew stats tell us? Mainline Christianity, meaning those churches typically seen as “liberal,” is crumbling in America. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows these denominations; they’ve been worrying about this trend for a long time. Not only are they hemorrhaging members, but their age demographics are terrifying. The Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination I’m familiar with, is a good example – two studies ten years apart found that their average congregant had aged ten years, the very definition of a “dying” church.

Catholicism is also losing lots of members. The story for the Catholic church is especially interesting, since the above chart doesn’t factor in immigration patterns. Two-thirds of all immigrants are Catholic, and most of them continue in the faith. American-born Catholics have much lower retention rates than the above chart indicates; as the General Social Survey (GSS, another big study with similar findings) remarks, 1 in 10 Americans is ex-Catholic.

I don’t cover those details to take glee in others’ pain, but I do point them out because the majority of those who have left Christianity were not evangelicals. While there are young evangelicals who grow up and leave the faith, there are non-evangelicals who are converting at the same time. In fact, according to the Pew study which the above graphic is based upon, the two movements are essentially balanced. We’re not in a booming growth spurt, but neither are we shrinking by a noticeable margin, much less crumbling like the prophets of doom tell us. This should certainly spur evangelicals on to sharing their faith, but it is also not a cause for alarm.

Before I move on to some synthesis, let me offer a few other non-alarmist stats. While everything said above was about religious self-identification and conversion, there are many other encouraging metrics for evangelicals.

  • Church attendance, which in many ways is a more indicative measure of religious commitment than self-identification, is doing well, particularly among the younger generations. The GSS found that church attendance for 20-something evangelicals, while having dipped in the ’90s, has consistently risen in the last ten years and is now the highest since the study started in 1972. The 2009 Gallup poll found that young protestants are attending church at the same rate as in the 1950s.
  • One interesting note, reflected in the graphic above and reinforced by the rest of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s research, is the lack of retention in the non-religious group. While many people become “nones,” many others born in non-religious settings also come to faith – in fact, half of those raised non-religious now self-identify with a religion. For evangelicals, this means that the “nones” are an opportunity as much as they are a cause for concern.
  • While I don’t have time to walk through all the stats, Christianity does also make a significant difference on how people live their lives, at least when we’re talking about those involved in Christian activities on a regular basis. Contrary to the common myth, divorce rates are lower among Christians than the non-religious, and much lower among frequent church attenders (according to the GSS, as discussed here, the stats for having ever been divorced are 48% for non-Christians, 41% for Christians, and 32% for Christians who frequently attend religious services). The same is true on numerous other moral issues – Christianity and high church attendance significantly impact behavior. There are areas for concern – evangelical sexual ethics, biblical literacy, and racial inequality are definitely not what they should be, for example. However, it is clear that if you are involved in Christianity on a regular basis your moral choices tend to reflect this involvement.

So much for a survey of the stats. There are certainly things that American evangelicals need to work on. However, there is also great cause to be encouraged. Contrary to the pessimistic predictions of 30-40 years ago, America has not become Europe, nor does it look to be doing so any time soon. Evangelicalism in America isn’t doing perfectly, but it is doing fine.

I realize “doing fine” isn’t a ringing endorsement, and I don’t mean it to be. There are plenty of areas where the church needs to grow. However, there is a huge difference between needing to grow and the alarmism I mentioned at the beginning of the post. The problem with catastrophic stats is that, while they are usually meant to motivate people, they end up doing the opposite. If 96% of my generation or the one after me is leaving the faith, it doesn’t make me want to reach out to the world. Instead, it makes me want to move somewhere friendlier to Christianity – like communist China. The last hundred years of alarmism in American evangelicalism has done at least as much to hinder the faith as it has to help it. We don’t need to encourage a bunker mentality in evangelicals; rather, we need to tell them to come out of their fallout shelters.

Theologically, Christianity should give us cause to be encouraged. It tells us that the gospel comes with the power of the Holy Spirit, that God’s promises are “for us and our children,” that Jesus Christ is at work in His people conforming them to His image, and that God’s kingdom is growing and transforming the world. We aren’t at a moment of crisis, but one of opportunity. Hope, not fearful defeatism, is the virtue Christ desires to foster in our hearts.

Two last plugs before I go. If you’re interested in some further reading on statistics, a helpful entry-level book on the specific stats for Christianity is this one, followed by this book about the topic more generally.


Filed under Jesus and the President, Unsolicited Advice

2 responses to “Lies, Damn Lies, and… Well, You Know

  1. Throughout the history of each and every religion in every age there have been changes in religious beliefs, religious institutions and religious ideology. The main stream churches in the past 50 years were the evangelical churches of the times they were founded. The Catholic Church has survived for centuries but took different form in different countries with various degrees of tolerance to other faiths.

    The evangelical churches of today may well be the established rotting churches of tomorrow. A new group of churches will be claiming the born again banner while thumbing their noses up at the main stream churches

    Much will change and much will stay the same. Even before the United States was born their have been cries that Christianity is dieing in America. And two hundred years from now they will be declaring the same thing. So what’s all of this complaining about. Absolutely nothing.

  2. Pingback: Note to Evangelicals: The sky ain’t falling « Notes from a Small Place

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