Sunday, May 10, 2009

Are There Really Fewer Christians in America?

In recent months there has been a rash of articles about the decline of Christianity in America. Statistics clearly show that fewer Americans identify with the Christian religion now than ever before. I have been reflecting deeply on this phenomenon in recent weeks and trying to make those statistics fit into my own experience as a church planting missionary in the least religious state in America. In the past eight years our mission efforts in Vermont have been more productive than ever. I keep asking myself “if evangelical churches are growing so rapidly in Vermont, how can we still be the least churched state in the nation?” I also wonder if there is a disconnect between the statistics and reality in Vermont, does the same thing hold true across the rest of the nation?

I’m not sure that anyone has done an actual scientific poll about this apparent disparity yet, but I have a theory about why statistics might not be matching up to my own experience. I think that a large number of people who have called themselves Christians in the past did so out of tradition or habit. But many of those people never truly had a personal commitment to following Christ in their daily lives. This does not mean they were atheists, it just means that their Christianity was more of a vague concept or in some cases more akin to a membership in a social club, than a deep personal faith in God. While such a commitment to Christianity has some merit, it also has significant weaknesses. The primary weakness with this less personal form Christianity is that when it is tested, it will almost always collapse.

Without question, the “concept” of Christianity has been severely tested in recent years. Too many Protestant television evangelists have gone bad and too many Catholic priests have molested children. Anyone with only a vague Christian commitment would distance themselves from the church under these circumstances. Therefore the number of people indicating they are Christians has naturally dropped as these individuals who were on the fringe anyway no longer identify themselves as Christians. However, it is my belief that the number of actual committed Christians has remained relatively the same. Thus Christianity itself is not in decline, people are simply being more honest about their commitment, or lack thereof, than in the past.

I am aware that this theory does not account for all the people who have dropped out of the Christian faith. There are some who were clearly committed to Christ who seem to have walked away from their faith, and my theory would not be true in their case. But haven’t there always been people who seemed committed to Christ that walked away during difficult times? Some of them will eventually come back, some of them never well. This has always been a difficult reality to explain, and there are no easy answers for why it happens. But in my own experience in Vermont, I have not witnessed a great falling away of “committed” Christians, though I have seen a great decline in people who were only sporadic in their commitment to begin with.

Perhaps this is what is really happening across America. Perhaps people are simply being more honest about their faith, which can actually be a good thing. Perhaps Christianity is not in as much trouble as some are so quick to declare. Regardless, we must continue to make the role of Christianity in America a matter of prayerful reflection and seek the Lord's will for how to respond to what is happening in our culture.

12 comments:

  1. I was thinking that it must be disheartening for you to hear that Vermont is now the least churched state in the Union. It used to be popular to be a Christian; now that doesn't seem to be true. I believe that too many of us believe we have all the things we do because of our own doing, so we do not need God. God has made things too easy for us in the USA. Now, we are turning our back on Him.
    On the other hand, one of my favorite quotes is from Will Rogers and he usually hits things right on the head. "Nothing lies like statistics." In my experiences that has proven true many times. Keep doing the wonderful work you are doing and reap the rewards!

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  2. Dr. David S. LeeMay 11, 2009 at 9:18 AM

    Good report, but the USA Today article was about all the religions in America (Evangelicals, Liberals, cults, & the like). That means the stats are more staggering for how many are truly saved and it should cause us the witness all the more. Yes, we are experiencing God's blessing on the GMBA, but we are all the more a mission field than we first thought.

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  3. Dave and Lou McKeeMay 11, 2009 at 9:20 AM

    Very good summary, Terry. I can agree with your theory. It seems to me that, perhaps some who identified themselves as “Christian” in the past
    would re-assess themselves upon hearing the ‘GOOD’ radio and TV evangelists explain the plan of salvation. As Director of Belton Interfaith Ministerial Assoc. my recent analysis showed that 48.7% of the people we interview for assistance, are unchurched and some don’t even wish to be referred to a local church. However, we are referring most of them to area churches and encouraging the Pastors to visit them. Pray for this program.
    Good thoughts. Thanks for sharing them.
    Our prayers are with you and Kay and the kids.

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  4. Bruce James, Baptist Convention of New EnglandMay 11, 2009 at 9:40 AM

    I appreciate your insight especially since it's coming from one whose boots are on the ground there in what's been dubbed the "most secular state." You sifted the matter and nailed the conclusion correctly. I'm with you and excited about what the Lord is doing among His followers in New England. And I agree as you conclude it is a good thing that people are being honest about their faith.
    Concerning the times we are in I'm often reminded of this quote Yale professor Kenneth Scott Latourette, detailed in “A History of Christianity” about the advancement of the Christian movement worldwide. In it he uncovered a pattern that reminded him of waves crashing toward the shore with the incoming tide. Despite eras of spiritual recession, he noted, it would only be a matter of time before other movements surfaced in some segment of the Church to lead in re invigorating the Christians with passion for Christ’s greatness and glory. Each time such efforts ushered in new epochs of Gospel advance among unbelievers. Whether it was the catacombs, communism or commercialism it is not the size of the movement as much as a size of the vision of Christ that made the difference.

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  5. A good word Terry. Thanks for sharing. I also had been wondering about those stats.

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  6. Very thought provoking. I would tend to agree with you that more people are being truthful about their faith (or lack thereof) when these questions are being asked. However, there is no doubt that our influence in society is down. To date, there are now five states that allow gay marriage, Vermont included. Network television is filled with more filth than ever and our public schools are doing a great job of turning our kids into humanists. We need to focus on winning the lost and discipling the found. We must focus on changing the heart or this great nation that once was mightily influenced by Christ will no longer be a nation that acknowledges him.

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  7. Our job is still and to share the good news to all who will listen and to teach and encourage those who truly connect with God through faith in Jesus. If we keep our eyes on the ball we will never run out of blessings to discover as we share the good news.

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  8. Yes, in total agreement with your conclusion.

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  9. I listened to a sermon by Paul Washer who said the reason we have a great “falling away” was because we have pastors who tell people they are saved because they said a prayer. He also says that men have no way of knowing if someone is saved because men cannot see someone’s heart, and simply saying a prayer did not save them.
    Therefore, we have a great deal of false converts who thought they were saved because they said a prayer, when in actuality they may not be Christians at all. These people eventually give up because they never felt different, nor were they ever changed, so they “fall away” and consider themselves non Christians.

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  10. David Russell, Burlington Street MinistriesMay 11, 2009 at 3:25 PM

    Because of the TV evangelist and the Catholic priest scandals, there are a lot of us Christians who do not like to use the word "christian" or "evangelical" anymore. There are so many bad connotations that come with those two words. Some of us prefer to use, "follower of Jesus," or even "Jesus People" to describe ourselves.

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  11. If someone asked if I am religious I would probably say "no, I am a Christian." The term "religious" is too broad of a term for me and has a negative effect on me. I think of the Pharisees and the Saducees when I hear that term.

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