Christian Advance in America?

I found this article reprinted recently through a Facebook contact.  The basic gist is that Christianity is not shrinking in America.  It  is growing and it is redistributing.  Mainline, traditional denominational churches continue to lose members rapidly, but not because they are leaving the faith.  Rather, they are migrating to non-denominational churches.  Furthermore, the article asserts that  these non-denominational churches tend to be more conservative, challenging their members to authentic Christianity instead of the watered-down, cultured conditioned faith  that liberal mainline churches have gravitated towards.

It was a surprising article.  I’m not sure what to make of it..   Belonging to a very conservative mainline denomination, I can attest that our numbers are shrinking but certainly not because of shallow  theology or liberally conditioned exegesis.  The article tends to paint all mainline denominations as liberal icons that in caving to cultural demands have lost their authority and their people are going places where the Bible is taken more seriously and the Christian faith is a more vibrant thing.  But that isn’t an accurate description of all mainline denominations.

Also interesting is the focus on what I’ll call the very devout – people who attend church more than once a week.  The author mentions other identifiers such as daily prayer and accepting the Bible as “deeply reliable” but I think it’s the more than once a week worship that makes the difference.  The percentage of Christians who identify these traits in themselves has remained constant over the last 50 years.  I don’t find this surprising.  People who take their faith seriously are likely to continue in that faith and pass it on to their children more effectively than those with a faith life mainly consisting of corporate worship.  But I worship once a week, not more than once a week, so I wouldn’t fall into this category.  Interesting.

Or is it condemning of me and the assumed practices of mainline churches?  I genuinely wonder.  Yet my anecdotal experience with those attending non-denominational churches is that they only worship once a week.  In fact, the only people I’ve ever known to attend more than one worship service a week (outside of specific liturgical seasons such as Lent or Advent) are Roman Catholics.  Curious again.

In reviewing the actual research this article summarizes, some of these points are more clear.  The number of mildly affiliated Christians is declining.  The number of non-affiliated Christians is growing.   But the number of strongly committed Christians remains steady.  Similarly, the number of Christians attending worship occasionally is decreasing and the number of people who never go to church is growing, but those who worship multiple times per week remains constant (at just under 10% of respondents).

In fact, the data seems to contradict the article’s implied conclusion.  You might deduce from the article that evangelical non-denominational churches are growing by leaps and bounds, but the research doesn’t show this either, at least in terms of self-described affiliation (Figure 5).

The study’s actual conclusion is that for the moderately religious, church is not becoming too weak, but rather they are finding traditional, faithful Biblical teaching – which is now decried and subverted by our culture – to be too jarring, too much at odds with the rest of the world around them.  It is moderate  Christians who are migrating away from traditional, conservative mainline congregations, not the uber-faithful.

Though I may be reading the research wrong, I don’t think the article’s summary of it is accurate.  The deeply faithful remain a consistent subset of the religious (Christian) in America, while those with moderate or weak faith (defined in the study, I think, as not praying as much or worshiping as often) move away from any active participation or affiliation with churches.  True, not attending worship is not the same thing as abandoning the faith, but it’s a potentially dangerous scenic vista en route to that final destination.


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