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.