If you listen to many voices in the mainstream media, it is only a matter of time before American Christianity goes the way of long-extinct Dodo bird. We’re told that this nation is following in the secularizing footsteps of Western Europe where many once-prominent churches have become museums instead of houses of worship.
A recent article touted this headline: “The Percentage of Young Adults with No Religious Affiliation Has Nearly Quadrupled Since 1986.” If accurate, that’s scary, because the future of Christianity requires the passing on of the faith to each succeeding generation. It appears there is a breakdown in this process.
But upon further examination, the picture is not nearly so dire. Earlier this year Harvard University published research that clearly demonstrates that America is a strong “exceptional outlier” to the secularization pattern that has happened elsewhere. Yes, mainline denominations are in precipitous decline. Churches that deny the historicity of Jesus, the reality of sin, the biblical view of marriage as only between two heterosexual adults, and ordain homosexual clergy are rapidly hemorrhaging members, many of whom are choosing churches that continue to stand for the orthodox and historic Christian faith. In contrast, our own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, has continued a pattern of slow, consistent growth, with an increase in total membership each of the last four years.
People are demonstrating with their feet that they care about theology and real, practical Christianity. It’s a simple reality that those churches which have forsaken orthodox, biblical theology are experiencing dramatic decline.
What of the rapid growth of the youthful “nones” – young adults with no religious connection? Research indicates that of those young people who left the faith, only 11 percent said they had a strong faith in childhood. The remaining 89 percent indicated that they came from a home where there was a weak adherence to faith and practice. As one observer commented, “It’s not a news flash that kids don’t tend to hang onto what they never had in the first place.”
The facts demonstrate that there remains a strong, vibrant Christian community in America. The Harvard research found that the percentage of Americans who attend church more than weekly, pray daily, and believe the Bible to be a wholly reliable guide for their lives has remained absolutely consistent for at least the past 50 years. And this is not a tiny percentage. One-third of Americans pray multiple times a day – this in stark contrast to the average in other countries of one in 15. Moreover, those who take their faith seriously, as a percentage of all religious people, have grown from 39 percent in 1989 to the current 47 percent.
The bottom line is that God continues to build a strong Christian presence in this nation. But that is no reason for complacency. Instead, these trends highlight the urgency for Christian parents to devote themselves with renewed vigor to the mandate of Deuteronomy 6: “These words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children . . .” And if you want your church to grow, remain unalterably committed to the historic Christian faith taught in the New Testament and recovered during the Reformation.