Of course, this conclusion flies directly in the face of the common story line that so many of us have been told time and again from those inside and outside of the church. These scholars do note the rapid rise of those who report they are unaffiliated with any institutional faith today—the infamous and little understood “nones,” which we will examine fully and clarify carefully later—a number that has more than doubled since the late 1980s. However, they also find what they describe as “a patently persistent level of strong affiliation” over the past few decades, demonstrating what they call “a very stable trend line.”
What this means, of course, is that while the number of people who have a lukewarm faith and who are dabblers is declining significantly—and we will see plenty of evidence for this as we go on—robust, diligent discipleship congregations are holding like an anchor with remarkable consistency. In fact, the data show that believers who pray many times a day have increased by more than 8 percent since 1991 and those who attend church services more than once a week rose slightly. Pew Research Center findings show the same thing over the last decade, as we will see shortly. The number of evangelical young adults is also rising, as we shall learn in chapter 7. For those keeping score at home, holding steady and even rising slightly is not declining. That sounds like very good news, but we have not even scratched the surface in our investigation yet.
The Indiana University/Harvard research, in agreement with Pew’s Greg Smith, says that “evangelicals are not on the decline” but actually “grew from 1972 when they were 18 percent of the population, to a steady level of about 28 percent from 1989 to 2016.” This particular “percentage of the population” measure is very significant, and it’s important to clarify its significance. It shows not only growth in terms of real numbers, but enough growth to keep up with or even exceed the rate of population growth. That’s not nothing.
Suppose you were working hard to attract and hold a crowd as a business owner, university president, indie music artist, community volunteer coordinator, or banana stand operator. Whatever line of work you were in, you would be absolutely giddy at experiencing this kind of growth, and you’d be right to be. You could call yourself very successful, and it would be difficult to reasonably challenge you on your sense of accomplishment. This the present state of evangelicalism, and it’s the opposite of what would animate Chicken Little.
In contrast, the Indiana/Harvard research showed that mainline Protestants5 have declined precipitously from 35 percent of the American population in 1972 to 12 percent of the population in 2016. This is Chicken Little territory. The decline of the mainline churches began in 1960s and early 1970s as they started to question and even officially change their positions on historic Christian basics like the existence of miracles, the reality of sin, and the actual atoning death of Christ and His resurrection, as well jettisoning biblical convictions about sex, gender issues, and abortion. People ran for the doors of these churches in mass with every new compromise, and this exodus continues today. Compromising biblical truths was and is a devastating church-growth strategy. It could hardly be worse if these pastors asked their parishioners to leave and never come back.
Because of these changes, the Indiana/Harvard researchers explained that, of people who were affiliated with a church, the only group that increased was those who were more robust and traditional in their beliefs and practices, from 39 percent of all church attenders in 1989 to 47 percent in 2017. Therefore, Christianity in America—and in most other places in the world, as we will see in chapter 6—is growing more vibrant and traditional.
So is Christianity shrinking?
Not if you’re talking about the biblically faithful congregations that call their people to genuine Christian discipleship. Only from the mainline churches do you hear that big sucking sound emanating. Most of these congregations are free falling as if they have a millstone tied to their necks. And the more liberal they are, the faster they plummet.
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).