Updated: Oct 23, 2019
In just ten short years the number of Americans who identify as Christian has dropped 12%. That is extremely rapid. What is going on?
My initial reaction was we have failed at generational faith; meaning I assumed it is the young people falling away from their faith. The whole "Repeat them to your children and talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road,..." thing in Deuteronomy 5:6-9. Few in my generation did that. We aren't teaching our children our faith. But my generation couldn't. What I have found teaching Bible classes to adults is the information I give, for the most part, is new to them. They get so excited to learn it! You can't teach your children what you don't know yourself. Generational faith is not being passed on.
The group of the population that has no religious affiliation are called "nones" and they are the fastest growing group. In my 20's I pretty much quit going to church, but I still affiliated as a Christian. In other words I didn't stop believing in the tenets of the Christian faith - that Jesus came to be the atoning sacrifice for me and that my belief in Him made me right with God and sealed my eternity. "Nones" include atheists and agnostics, but the majority of "nones" believe in spirituality. Just not a religion. Just not one way. Just not that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.
When you look at the Pew Research statistics you see the majority of the people who associate as atheists, agnostics, or "nones" are indeed Millennials (born 1981-1996). However, we are seeing a significant amount of people from the Silent Generation (born 1928-1945), the Baby Boomers (1946-1964), and Generation X (1965-1980) no longer identifying as Christian also. It is fair to say people from all generations are falling away from the Christian faith.
Perhaps it has more to do with the state of our churches today. Church attendance is dropping so something is going on. God spreads the kingdom through the church and that makes it important to go to church and to be part of a church community.
Personally I believe the biggest failure in our churches today is the lack of training in Christian discipleship. I repeatedly offered to teach my Connecting the Dots of the Bible class for free to the youth at various churches. The youth ministers thought the young people would think that was boring and wouldn't come. Youth ministers have to make it entertaining to get the students there. How much teaching and mentoring is going on in youth group meetings? The students can go the whole way though middle school and high school and have no substantial Bible knowledge. It isn't just the youth though. It is across the board. Biblical training is greatly lacking in our churches today.
I believe we need to equip Christians. They know the basic gospel message, but where they are lacking is basic Bible knowledge (and I'd say therefore basic knowledge of God). Most haven't read the Bible for themselves. Maybe bits and pieces. For the most part they only know what they have heard in church or from others. We should train them on how we know our text is reliable, how the Bible came to the modern age, how it is organized, basic Bible study skills, why we believe it is God's word, etc. Teach them enough apologetics information about creation and evolution, the messianic prophesies, etc. to help them stand firm when confronted by the skeptics of the world.
Church attendance is down. Bible literacy is down. Churches are not giving Christians a firm foundation. We've been dumbing it down for the past several decades and I believe this is a huge mistake. We need to be raising the bar, not lowering it even further.
Churches could offer classes and training, but people just aren't interested in making religious training a priority. What if parents thought biblical training was as important as soccer practice and band practice?! What if adults chose to go to a class instead of reading the latest greatest novel on cleaning out their closet? People seem to be satisfied with their level of spiritual knowledge, which appears to be, well, minimal. Churches need to turn that around. Show the value and there is real value in being sure of what you believe! Not just the "this is what we believe", but the "and this is why we believe it" part.
Over the past few decades traditional churches have bickered over doctrine pertaining to mainly social issues - fracturing their denominations. Losing membership. Who wants to be part of a community which is warring with each other? Community churches sprung up being "seeker" churches. They are great at presenting the gospel, but then fail to mentor the new believers. Great is the fall of a house built on sand. (Matthew 7:24-27). I think many of the community churches underestimated the importance of a multi-generational congregation. A church needs to have mature believers who have walked with Christ a long time to minister and model to others.
The sermons/ messages in our churches focus heavily on God is loving and are almost silent on the God is holy part. They are giving half the message.
Yes, our modern churches have not given us a firm foundation. They have neglected to train us, encourage us, and convict us.
Is the rapid pace of the falling away of the faithful in the past ten years a cumulative effect of our churches' failures and our lack of generational training or is it something else? Perhaps it is closely tied to what has gone on in our culture. Our society's beliefs have drastically changed in the past ten years. What was scandalous decades ago like adultery, divorce and living together are not shocking now. No one today blinks an eye at those. Look at the issues we have faced recently! It is literally a cultural revolution! How Christians have responded to those changes in culture says a lot about the maturity or lack of maturity of our faith. We need to tread lightly while remaining firm in our beliefs.
I have for the past several years interacted with several non-believers on a Bible forum. I have had intelligent conversations with them. They know the gospel message. They just don't believe it. They know "what" we believe. They often insinuate Christians are ignorant and naive; narrow-minded; and judgmental. I have not found this to be the case with my mature Christian friends. We have well-thought out reasons for our Christian beliefs. I've found "narrow-minded" and "judgmental" are terms people will hang on other people when those people don't agree with their beliefs.
The influence of the media on the American perception of certain groups is significant. The media purposefully portrays Christians in a negative light and people are buying it. History Channel regularly uses an atheist professor as their "expert" biblical scholar. This "expert" often omits information when making a point. Believing biblical scholars are not consulted to give their side of the argument or the full story. In 1990 0.7% of Americans were agnostic. The atheists weren't even detectible on the 1990 survey. Today atheists comprise 4% of the American population (still a small percentage) and yet they are often put front and center, and portrayed as "intellects." Westboro Baptist Church and their repulsive actions have frequently made news in the past ten years. They are whack-o and are not Christians. They bear no fruit. But these are the examples of "experts" and "intellects" and "Christians" placed before Americans.
Social media fuels all of this too. People have become so unkind and will say such offensive things on social media which they would never say to a person's face. Much of what we are fed is not reality. These warped perceptions are influencing people. Our goal as Christians should be to influence in a positive way - to guard our words and what we share so that they give grace to others.
Many self proclaimed Christians aren't doing a very good job of reflecting the image of Christ to the world. I have read and watched the words spewed by Christians to others. To the gay community, to women of the MeToo movement, to how the churches have responded to sexually abused children and adults, the complementarian versus egalitarian battle, the race and religion hate speech, etc. I just today read a Christian minister say the most ugly things about Beth Moore on his Twitter page. His words were so unkind I was wondering if he even reads the Bible. He certainly hasn't taken its words to heart. The vitriol in our society has reached deafening levels. Is it any wonder that people say, 'If this is what it is like to be a Christian, I want no part of that.'? People feel attacked. Christians should not be attacking others.
We Christians are to be able to make a defense to everyone who asks us to give an account for the hope that is in us, yet with gentleness and reverence; (1 Peter 3:15b). The actions and words of many of today's Christians are missing "the gentleness and reverence" that is commanded. We are to bear fruit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. We are to give words good for edification (building up and encouraging) according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29b) And the next verse has an imperative; "Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,"
I think it must be a myriad of reasons people are falling away from the Christian faith. This trend is shocking, alarming, and very scary. And I don't think we have the luxury of time in addressing it.
What is my role in all of this? Am I representing Christ well? Are my actions and words turning people off from Christianity? Am I showing them Christ?
Am I continuing to grow in my faith?
Am I being purposeful in my relationship with God?
Am I teaching others and encouraging them?
We have to learn so we can defend our faith. We have to stand firm in our faith. We have to rest in His presence. We have to submit to His will. We must put on our armor in preparation. We must reflect his image. We must clutch to our hope. And we must pray fervently for a hurting world.
Christians need to start modeling Christ.
Read In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace by Pew Forum.