The answer to the question of whether Christianity is shrinking or not is both yes and no. This seemingly contradictory answer is the key to understanding the truth of the current and future state of the church. But for a people of faith committed to truth and used to dealing in the absolute categories of black and white, right and wrong, true and false, how can we accept the right answer being two clear opposites?
Let’s get to examining what the best data actually shows, and we’ll see how the numbers reveal the real guts and truth of the story. In a few words, the story is this:
Some parts of the church are indeed shrinking and some are not at all. Some are doing quite well, even growing. But which parts of the church are shrinking and to what degree? And which churches are doing well?
These are the two fundamental questions. Let me explain our path of exploration in the coming chapters as we examine the research. We will move across the lake from the shore of confusion to the opposite shore of clarity, stepping on the orderly stones that are the findings of the most notable professional research, journal articles, and reports from leading mainstream organizations that track church growth and decline numbers. We won’t rely on news stories or organizations that are identified with a particular faith tradition. We will not be relying on one or two sources, the common problem in most reporting on and retelling of this story. We will be taking a much wider, deeper approach and get up to our elbows in the mixing bowl of this research, but in a very readable, direct, and easy-to-understand way.
To employ another metaphor here, like students on a guided tour, we will stop by, be introduced to, and check in with the essential original voices and leading experts on our topic to see what they have to teach us. This is really the only way we can get the actual, reliable picture of things.
Let’s start by considering the investigative work of two widely respected leaders in this field of study: Greg Smith and Rodney Stark.
Greg Smith has long worked as the associate director of research for the Pew Research Center, one of the most trusted and respected institutions on this topic. In an interview with Christianity Today a few years ago, Smith was asked by Dr. Ed Stetzer of Wheaton College if evangelicalism was dying. He said simply, “Absolutely not,” and went on to explain, “There’s nothing in these data to suggest that Christianity is dying. That Evangelicalism is dying. That Catholicism is dying. That is not the case whatsoever.”
Dr. Stetzer asked Smith specifically about what he calls “a cottage industry in Evangelicalism saying the sky is falling.” Smith responded,
With respect to Evangelicalism in particular I would say, that particularly compared with other Christian traditions in the United States, Evangelicalism is quite strong. It’s holding its own both in terms of its share of the total population. It’s holding its own in terms of the number of Americans who identify with Evangelical Christianity. If you look at Christianity as a whole… the share of Protestants in the United States who are Evangelicals is, if anything, growing.1
If anything, growing. There are few people who know as much about these things as Greg Smith.
Dr. Stetzer also interviewed Professor Rodney Stark, codirector of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and the school’s distinguished professor of the social sciences. Professor Stark has been at this work much longer than most, and he has grown very impatient with the “sky is falling” falsehood. He is not shy about voicing that impatience, as you will see. Dr. Stetzer asked him about his perspective on the state of evangelicalism in terms of decline. Stark had this to say: “Well, I think this notion that they’re shrinking is stupid. And it’s fiddling with the data in quite malicious ways. I see no such evidence.”2
What I have called the Chicken Littles, he playfully called the Bad News Bearers, adding, “[They] make a living coming and saying, ‘Church is going to hell… everything’s going.’… And they’re always wrong.” He also complained that “one of the standard ones just drives me nuts is, ‘Young people are leaving the church in droves, what are we going to do?’” He finds no evidence for this, and much to the contrary. We will observe the larger body of research in support of Stark’s conclusions on young adults later. It does not tell a Chicken Little story by any stretch.
Smith and Stark are not the only deeply respected scholars and specialists on this topic. As we will see, there are many more, and they hail from leading research organizations. Two sociologists working jointly—Sean Bock from Harvard and Landon Schnabel from Indiana University—were recently interested in exploring the apparent reality that faith is declining precipitously in the United States. They wanted to test the assumption that our nation is on a trajectory toward staggering secularization like many parts of Western Europe are experiencing. They call this the “secularization thesis,” the idea that modern life, cultural advancement, the abundance of material possessions, and the dominance of a scientific worldview inevitably translate into a culture where religion becomes increasingly irrelevant and relegated to the blue-hair pensioners and a few superstitious, anti-science hangers-on. These two scholars asked whether this was indeed true, and tested this thesis using some sophisticated measures. Their findings? It’s certainly not what most would have guessed. Not at all.
What made their study unique was that they measured not only faith practices and beliefs, things like prayer habits, church attendance, and one’s view of the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible, but also the intensity of faith, the seriousness with which people practiced and believed these things. For instance, they wanted to find out not just whether but how often people pray as a general habit. Only when in crisis or only when it comes to mind? Or do they do so daily as a regular part of their lives? How often do they attend church? Are they only Christmas and Easter types, once or twice a month, or the weekly/more than once a week stalwarts? What is their view of Scripture? Do they read and study the Bible as the actual, trustworthy, authoritative Word of God, or do they see it as merely a good book of inspiration?
The gold of their investigation was being able to distinguish what we can call the dabblers from the diligent disciples. This is important because a major assumption of many is that the more so-called “progressive and enlightened” churches that have changed their beliefs to match the times would be growing. Wanting to keeping current with the modern age, people would certainly migrate toward those congregations that no longer harped on sin and hold that “old idea” of a need for repentance and forgiveness. Surely congregations teaching that miracles are for ages past would hold more attraction to the modern mind, and loosening up on obedience to traditional sexual ethics would be seen as more welcoming and noncondemning. And certainly stringent churches that stress these things would be shrinking, because who wants to hear about all that?
These two scholars’ findings were clear and remarkably counterintuitive. In the introduction of their study, they let their readers know point blank:
We show that rather than religion fading into irrelevance as the secularization thesis would suggest, intense religion—strong affiliation, very frequent practice, literalism and evangelicalism—is persistent, and in fact, only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States.3
Get that. Only moderate religion is on the decline in the US. Their findings show, as they explain, “the United States has demonstrated sustained levels of intense religiosity [of which they mean Christianity primarily] across key measures over the past decades that are unique when compared to other advanced, industrial societies.”4 They go so far as to say that the US is a marked exception and distinguished counterexample to the secularization thesis. In the United States, Christian faith that takes Scripture and the spiritual disciplines seriously has remained vibrant over the past few decades, right up to the present day. Lukewarm faith and practice, however, have been on a marked downward trajectory across every measure they examined.
Glenn T. Stanton, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and the World (New York, NY: Worthy Books, 2019).