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The Latest Pew Survey: Christianity Losing, Secularism Winning

October 15, 2012
S. Michael Craven
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This is clearly the implication of the media reports following the latest Pew Research, “Nones on the Rise,” which shows a “steep decline” in the number of Americans who self-identify as Protestant, coupled with a “significant jump” in the number of those who now claim “no religion.” The secular devotees in the media seem hardly able to constrain their delight over the prospect that Christianity is disappearing in America.

Trying to spin this in such a way that the Christian faith appears culturally vital in the U.S. is a little like putting lipstick on a pig; but concluding that Christianity is losing and secularism is winning isn’t quite accurate either.

The Pew study asked 2973 adults nationwide: “What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?”

The number of Americans who identified themselves as Protestant was 48 percent, down from 53 percent in 2007. (In 1960, two-thirds of American adults identified themselves as Protestant.) Catholics showed only a modest 1 percent drop, while Orthodox (Christian) and Mormons remained steady and those claiming “other faith” experienced a 2 percent increase.

As to the other side—the religiously unaffiliated or so-called “Nones”—the picture is not quite as clear as the headlines suggest. First, the study’s category of “religiously unaffiliated” has in fact risen from 15.3 percent of U.S. adults in 2007 to 19.6 percent in 2012. This, when coupled with the apparent drop in the number of self-described Protestants, seems to suggest that apostasy is to blame. However, after carefully examining the research, I think the issue being identified has little to do with apostasy and more to do with religious ignorance and theological assimilation.

For starters and despite the media’s inference, the Nones are not necessarily atheist. In fact, only 2.4 percent of Americans identify themselves as atheists (another 3.3 percent claim to be agnostic). The largest category (13.9 percent) of the religiously unaffiliated are those who say they are “nothing in particular.” However, the report also makes clear that those in the nothing-in-particular category are by no means irreligious.

In fact, two-thirds of the unaffiliated say they believe in God and 55 percent describe themselves either as a “religious person” or as “spiritual but not religious.” Other Pew Research surveys found that 76 percent of Americans say that prayer is “an important part of their daily life,” a figure unchanged for the last twenty-five years.

The 2012 Pew study also points out that “The number of Americans who currently say religion is very important in their lives (58%) is little changed since 2007 (61%) and remains far higher than in Britain (17%), France (13%), Germany (21%) or Spain (22%).” Clearly, this growing category of those claiming “nothing in particular” when it comes to religion does not signal the triumph of secularism.

So what’s really going on here? As I said earlier, I think the issue being identified may be more closely related to the religious ignorance of some Christians and the assimilation of popular pagan ideas into Christianity.

Because the question only presents the Christian religion in terms of its three main traditions—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—I think there are a significant number of Protestant Christians who wouldn’t know (or choose) to identify themselves as such. For one, some evangelical Christians—especially those attending non-denominational churches—would be uncomfortable with the term Protestant because they associate being Protestant with liberal mainline denominations. In other words, they’re Protestant, they just don’t know it. I see similar confusion among some of these same congregations who actually reject the use of the Apostles’ Creed because it includes the word catholic, thinking (wrongly) that this is referring to the Roman Catholic Church.

To put it simply, too many of our brothers and sisters lack the basic knowledge of church history to properly understand many of the critical terms relative to their own faith and practice.

Theological assimilation, however, may be the larger problem. Those who claim “nothing in particular” when it comes to religion seem to be rejecting historic orthodox Christianity and its accompanying authority structures for a religion of their own design. The vast majority of these—as I pointed out earlier—say they believe in God, pray each day, and claim religion is “very important” to them. Thus they largely remain “religious.” However, one must ask: In what God do they believe, what religion are they practicing, and to whom are they praying if they don’t identify with any religion?

What I believe this report reveals is the growing assimilation of pagan (new-age and deistic) ideas, sprinkled with therapeutic self-interest, finally mingled with a childhood Christian tradition. The result is a highly personalized and therapeutic form of Christian faith and practice, i.e., culturalized Christianity. This is especially true among those under thirty, whose theology sociologist Christian Smith described as “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.” It is among this demographic the church is suffering its highest levels of defection.

While it may make us feel better to think that the church is losing ground due to assault by secular forces; it is likely that apathy and heresy are bigger threats to Christianity in America than secularism. We have got to do a better job of transmitting the faith from one generation to the next by once again offering a Christ-centered (rather than “me-centered”) faith that is theologically robust, socially relevant, and culturally engaged if we want to arrest this trend.

© 2012 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Jim Lewis  

October 15, 2012 9:32 AM

Where do Baptists fit in the Pew survey?
With the non-conformists they like so many were persecuted in Europe and the New World. To wit: Rhode Island.

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

October 15, 2012 9:58 AM

Thanks for the question. In short, Baptists would/should be among "Protestants" since they grew out of the Protestant Reformation and held/hold to Protestant doctrine.

Response from : Robert Davis  

October 15, 2012 1:36 PM

In this United States I am not surprised
people go to worship only when it fits their schedule, they want to be entertained not edified. And their children follow their example. When was the last time you saw a family pray before a meal in a restaurant. Or on the flip side how many Chuches have some event that promotes halloween or cancels Sunday night services due to it being Super Bowl Sunday. How many people when asked could tell you the Ten Comandments if asked. The decline in faith is due to poor Parenting and once saved allways saved feel good preaching, America show me your faith by your works, not by your words only!


Response from : Oliver Obasi  

October 16, 2012 2:55 AM

Thanks for this article and others alike, the problem in Christedom of this age is non GODLY SPIRITED CLERGYS/ PASTORS, those who preach about marmon rather than GOD/ JESUS CHRIST. those who defraud their congregetions and that has caused some how lack of trust and Church attendance, Pastors waits no more for God's reward, they dupe the folks for their rewards. let there be repentance and we will experience bounce back.

Response from : Dave Kahle  

October 16, 2012 3:36 PM

There is another issue at play here. That is that there is a significant body of people, myself included, who consider themselves to be "just Christians." If I had been contacted by the survey, I would have indicated that I was "something else," other than the stated categories.

There is a major trend in the country of Christians who have become disaffected by the institutional church, regardless of the label on the building. These folks are most prominently surfacing in the growing house church movement, but may be simply boycotting the institutional church in search of a more meaningful encounter with Christ. It's impossible to estimate the number, as house churches aren't listed in the yellow pages. Here's one way to get a handle on how big this group is: Ask yourself this question: "Do I know anyone who may fit into the description above?" I suspect that almost every reader of this blog will, upon thoughtful reflection, answer in the affirmative.

Bottom line: There is a large and growing number of folks who consider themselves "Christians" but who would not fit into the traditional classifications.

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

October 16, 2012 10:57 PM

Dear Dave,

I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. I would like to respond to a couple of things you say. First, I am very familiar with the movement you are describing and personally know some of it's leading advocates such as George Barna and the ideas outlined in his book "Revolution." While I certainly agree that there is fertile ground for disillusionment with the contemporary church in its institutionalized expressions; a reaction that leads Christians to "strike out on their own" represents a form of spiritual anarchy that violates a biblical ecclesiology. We are told in the Scriptures that the church will include the "wheat and the tares." It is and will be--until Christ's return--imperfect.

To reject the term "Protestant" because one seeks the purer title of "Christian" reinforces the very point I was making. For one, there are "Christians" in the Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Thus "being Christian" isn't limited to the conservative wings of the formerly Protestant denominations.

Second, if you reject the doctrinal confessions of the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches the only option left within the pale of Christian orthodoxy is protestantism. Put another way, if you believe: 1) that the Bible is the only inspired and authoritative word of God and thus the only source for Christian doctrine, 2) that justification is received by faith alone, without any mixture of or need for good works, 3) that salvation comes by divine grace or "unmerited favor" only, not as something earned by the sinner, 4) that Christ is the only mediator between God and man, and that there is salvation through no other, and finally 5) that all glory is to be due to God alone, since salvation is accomplished solely through His will and action then you are, by definition, a Christian in the Protestant tradition.

In addition, the Christian faith is a profoundly communal enterprise (the Bride, the Body, the church, the people of God, John 17:21, Eph 2:11-22, etc.). It has only been elevated to a privatized and individualistic religion by 19th century fundamentalism, which was unwittingly bolstered by the pagan ideas of the Enlightenment and its exaltation of human reason, i.e., humanism. In other words, being Christian requires being in community with God's people. The Scriptures reinforce this point extensively.

Finally, the Bible prescribes some measure of "institutionalization" when we are commanded to elect elders for the jettisongovernance of church affairs, choose deacons for organizing the ministries of mercy and meeting essential needs, managing the daily distribution, Apostolic authority, administration of the sacraments, approving teachers, discipline, etc. There is a divine mandate for the establishment of order relative to the teachings, functions and work of "the church." Thus the church is both an organic reality (the Body of Christ) and an institution (church government). You simply cannot have one without the other. Even the most primitive "house church" must incorporate some level of institutionalization otherwise it would have no organization or be subject to no other authority than itself. Such has historically been fertile ground for cults.

I realize there is a great deal of frustration with the contemporary American church, and with good reason. These conditions have been the focus of my ministry for the last 11 years but to jettison the institutional realities of God's church would represent a diminished ecclesiology and be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Please don't take offense at what I'm saying, I'm not criticizing your response, merely offering a different perspective. There is much more that I could say here but this should suffice to get the dialogue started.


Response from : erina  

October 22, 2012 12:20 AM

After 17 years in large, non-denominational churches, one with a pentecostal flavor, another evangelical, I find that a house church is all I can handle. The more I served, and tithed, the more broken and broke my family became. I finally had to quit altogether for awhile and seek answers to the difficult questions of parenting, financial management, time management, and marriage on my own. I simply couldn't rely any longer on the institution of church to help me with any of those basic elements of life. I felt that the Godly life was out of reach for me, and I simply couldn't wait around for the huge church to help. I also felt that God was with me every step of the way. I got answers, Godly answers, from the secular world. Learned valuable new ways to be more loving. So church, for me, can no longer be sitting among hundreds or thousands, anonymously listening to someone else's opinion of what the Bible is saying. I read it for myself, and discuss it with friends. We share our needs, and we pray together. We share a meal. And I study everything that I can get my hands on to learn HOW to make my life more authentically loving. I don't know if I'm typical, or not. I don't really, honestly believe that God would say that I'm in a diminished ecclesiology. I'm just trying to live my life in a way that pleases Him. PS I know church history. I support some World Vision kids. I cook a meal for the homeless every other week. Keeping it simple. Focusing on what matters. Letting the rest go.

Response from : James McGarvey  

October 23, 2012 6:39 PM

My question on this new research would be, what does it say, if anything regarding the "seeker sensitive" movement of the last twenty or so years? Has its effort to "attract" people to the gospel by various appeals to basic human desires (some would say the carnal nature of man) and then keep them attending by presenting a "culturally relevant" message and atmosphere, failed? My observation would be that the Holy Spirit leads people to respond to a NT cross centered gospel message (Paul, I preach Christ crucified) and that the gospel is the "power of God unto salvation." Therefore, the human efforts to entice men into the kingdom has by and large failed to increase the kingdom of Christ. The music genre, "stage show" appeal, preaching in T-shirts and jeans, and all that goes with the "seeker" mindset, fails miserably as a substitute for the power of the Holy Spirit and the plain and simple cross centered message. Down through history the method of delivery has changed (compare Luther and Whitfield or Wesley) but when you tamper with the message and rely on human entertainment, personality, prestige, prominence and other non-essentials, appealing to the flesh - rather than the power of the Holy Spirit - you sacrifice regeneration and discipleship for glitz, glamour and numbers.
What say ye?

Response from : Betsy Cuvelier  

November 7, 2012 11:49 AM

I agree with Erina--the mainline denominations no longer prepares a person for life as a Christian--that is why I am fixing to make the jump from the United Methodist Church to The Wesleyan Church--based on verbiage, I have a hope I will learn about applied Christianity and become comfortable, conversant and confident in my faith. I also agree with James McGarvy--Christ has to be the foundation; the problem is not really about style of worship or liturgy; there are not enough people "out there" passioante about God, able to walk the walk, talk the walk in a reasonable and realistic manner 24/7. My decision to change denominations has been preceded by much reading over the last 3 years including John Wesley's writings. When I got to the quote where he basically said things did not take off untlil Christ was laid as the cornerstone, I smiled and thought of the failing United Methodist Church. I spent my life as a Methodist--I got a lot of things from it but the foundation/cornerstone of Jesus and I learned the hard way without that there is nothing. In the church's "defense", they seemed to get away from being the conveyors of the gospel because they were so successful, it was happening within families--however when families began to drift so did the church and as a result, there were people like me who got the end result and practices without the foundation/reason. There are signs United Methodism is starting to reclaim its roots, but it is going to be a long arduous task because there is no unity of thought and the institution itself is one designed for self-preservation and it is not designed for implementing the Great Commission. After monitoring The UMC, I have come up with a definition for divine turbulence: an institution designed for self-preservation starting to embrace its heritage/calling as the church, God's mission to the world--buckle your seat belts.


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