The church is dying – that is, if the headlines are to be believed.
Many of the recent headlines have come from the Pew Research Center’s report America’s Changing Religious Landscape, released in mid-May. That study found the Christian share of the United States population is decreasing. Meantime, the number of adults who do not identify with any religion is increasing.
But it also found the large majority of Americans continue to identify themselves as Christians.
And not everybody has interpreted its findings to mean the end of the American church.
Here are several different takes on the Pew survey, reason to believe the church isn’t dying.
1. The church is being ‘clarified.’
It’s not that the number of Christians actually is dropping, according to a USA Today column by Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research and contributing editor for Christianity Today. It’s that nominal Christians, “those who were Christian in name only,” are dropping the pretense, Stetzer said.
That affirms what many researchers have said before, he said.
Stetzer pointed to another recent poll – this one, by Gallup – that found the percentage of Americans who report attending church in the last week is about where it was in 1940 and 1950. And to another statistic in that Pew study: the raw number of people identifying as evangelicals actually has increased from 59.8 million to 62.2 million between 2007 and 2014, while their percentage of the U.S. population mostly has held steady.
“Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified,” he said. “Churches aren’t emptying; rather, those who were Christian in name only are now categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction and engagement.”
2. The church isn’t ‘normal’ anymore.
“Christianity isn’t normal anymore, and that’s good news,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
For much of the 20th Century, Moore wrote on his blog, people felt they had to be Christian to be “normal.”
That’s no longer the case, and that’s good, not only because atheists and agnostics no longer are marginalized, but also because the book of Acts shows us Christianity thrives when it is “a sign of contradiction,” he said. And it’s easier to speak a gospel to lost than to the “kind-of-saved,” he added.
3. The global church is alive and well.
The global church is “alive and well and thriving in many areas of the world,” Cindy Brandt wrote for The Huffington Post.
“And what joy it would be to allow their voices to speak into the congregations of the (global) North,” Brandt said.
Perhaps now, the American church is in a position to hear them. That can give perspective to the polarizing issues that have been the focus of the American “right” and “left” for so long, she said. It may soften the rhetoric. And it may remind us the human stories matter more than the numbers.
4. People may not be looking for a church, but they still are looking for God.
Those who didn’t identify with a religion in the Pew survey were asked a follow-up question about how important religion was in their lives. Of that group, 44 percent said religion is “very” or “somewhat” important, Emma Green noted in The Atlantic.
They may be churchless, Green surmised, but they are not faithless. They may not be looking for a church, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t looking for God.
“That’s not the pattern of a Godless nation; it’s the pattern of people finding God on their own terms,” she said.