Last October, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life unveiled new data showing that for the first time in its history, the United States does not have a Protestant majority. In large part due to the rise of “no religious affiliation” Americans to an all-time high (nearly 20 percent), the percentage of Protestants in America (48 percent) dropped below 50 percent for the first time.
Biola Magazine recently asked two alumni — researcher David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group, and Dave Keehn, a Christian education professor — about what evangelical Christians should make of this data. How should we respond to America’s changing religious landscape, and what challenges and opportunities might come with a new “minority” status?
In general, how do you think evangelicals should react to the new Pew data that shows Protestants are a minority for the first time in American history, and that “no religious affiliation” Americans are at an all-time high?
DAVE KEEHN: Personally, I am not surprised. For many years religion was merely a cultural thing for many Americans. Those who would adhere to an evangelical perspective (inerrancy of Scripture, Jesus is fully God and fully man, Jesus was sinless and our only means of salvation, etc.) have always been fewer in numbers than those who claim the popular definition of “Christian.” How should we react? I hope our hearts break as we realize many more people do not know the saving hope of Jesus Christ, and truly gather to discuss how we can reach out to the growing number of people who are truly confused about religious issues.
DAVID KINNAMAN: We need to see that these are important trends to pay attention to as believers. There’s that phrase, “demographics are destiny.” It’s important to pay attention to the changing spiritual landscape that gives us clues as to the kind of society we’ll have in the future. The bottom line is over the course of 50 years, we’ve become a very pluralistic, multi-faith and, in some cases, no-faith culture, and that is a distinct difference from our past.
Who makes up the increasing number of “no religious affiliation” Americans? Are they young people? People who have grown up religious but abandoned it? Immigrants?
KINNAMAN: It’s absolutely driven by younger people. Some of the data suggests that millennials are twice as likely to be religiously unaffiliated. This also tends to be more of a white experience than the experience of minorities. For Hispanics, the longer they are in the U.S. the more secularized they become. And Hispanics are projected to almost double in the next 30 years. It’s a very significant trend.
One of the ways to consider this is to think about it in terms of what I call mezzo trends. Unlike macro or larger-scale trends, mezzo trends are not in and of themselves redefining American religion. There are at least three mezzo trends among millennials of any religion in America. One is the disengaging, which is this rise of the “nones.” A second is among younger Christians who are sort of disengaging from institutions while remaining Christian; they’re sort of spiritual nomads. And then there is this sort of counter trend, the rise of the “new faithful.”
What makes it so confusing is that you can look for evidence and find solid examples and data that reflect each of these three trends. So, for example, aggressively evangelical atheists reflect the rise of the “nones.” The fact that Protestants have lost their majority status is the exodus problem. And the new faithful is sort of the reason why Christian colleges and other kinds of expressions are still pretty vibrant. As the culture is becoming more and more secularized, it is providing a backdrop for these institutions that serve younger Christians to thrive.
Why are more and more young people abandoning organized religion?
KEEHN: I think this is a family issue as well as a church issue. First, the influence of parents cannot be underestimated. Many parents were forced to go to church in their childhood and have decided to leave religious decisions completely up to their children to figure out. Or families have culturally kept attending a church, but a young person sees the hypocrisy in his or her family and moves on to other value systems. Secondly, young people have many spiritual questions that are not being answered in many churches today. We are losing the language of our faith when we focus our energy on “life advice” and not the eternal message of the gospel. Young people are hungry for passionate, clear explanations of Scripture. They seek preachers who will explain the relevancy of theology.
Churches must change their approach to ministry. First, empower parents to spiritually nurture their children so the teachings of Jesus are integrated into all aspects of family life. Secondly, churches must seek to connect young people to older Christians who can model a mature faith in Christ and mentor these young adults through life’s changes. Lastly, churches must view themselves as missional, no longer investing all their resources in trying to get people to come to their programs on their campus. We have far too long been about making our buildings and programs more inviting when we should have gone out to be amongst those who do not know who Christ is.
How should the church respond to the reality of a de-Christianizing America?
KINNAMAN: First, we must realize that there’s no getting around the fact that the culture is changing. There are too many Christians bemoaning the fact that the culture has changed and Christianity isn’t the moral center any longer. For me, it seems like that ship has already sailed. One of the ways I describe this is that it’s different trying to disciple in Babylon than it was when we were living in a culture of homogeneity, something like Jerusalem. So the first way to respond is to recognize the cultural reality of a multifaith world. Secondly, I think there are plenty of instances when Christianity actually historically thrived in those contexts. It means that some of our perceived rights are going to be under duress and there will be some ways we struggle, but I do think it will be incumbent upon us to think about our cultural engagement in a new way.
That new sort of cultural engagement — what does that look like when you’re engaging a culture that is increasingly biblically illiterate?
KINNAMAN: Part of it is recognizing the fact that we are going to learn from people we disagree with. Daniel spent three years in Babylon and had to learn the language and literature for at least three years until he was found as a young prophet. How do you discern the difference between being salt and light to the culture versus being trampled by the culture? There are two kinds of courage Daniel demonstrated: the courage to be pure, which is the lion’s den, the diet and his unwillingness to submit to the idols of the age. But he also had the courage to be proximate or close enough to the culture to influence it, to learn the language and literature of Babylon, to protect the pagan philosophers from death in Daniel 2 when the king is beside himself and wants to kill all the pagans. That, to me, is the wisdom Scripture gives us to think about our current culture, and I think it’s the wisdom that being salt and light demands of us.
What new opportunities might a “minority” status bring to evangelical Christianity?
KEEHN: If the church’s focus is political in nature (i.e. seeking to influence who runs for president), then being a “minority” is a status change to be lamented. However, if the church is the assembling of those “called out” — then the church has always been a minority. The “global church” operates this way daily, in a persecuted, minority status; we in America must realize we are now more like them. Yet, the power of the gospel is doing great things in those environments — so I’m looking forward to God’s power manifesting in new ways in our nation.
Also, missionaries have always been a minority in the community they serve. Perhaps the greatest opportunity lies within ourselves to start living as missionaries in our daily lives. We should no longer assume our friends, neighbors, classmates and coworkers already know about Jesus; we have an opportunity to give them this lifechanging truth.
What new challenges might it bring?
KEEHN: It will bring challenges to churches that try to live by the standards of Scripture. We already see churches and faith-based ministries confronted with implications of homosexuality and value-of-life issues. The “swimming upstream” grind will become constant as we stand for truth and values that are contrary to the world around us. Legislation will make “sin” the normal way of life, and to oppose it will make Christians defy the new rules. This will bring unknown economic and personal hardships that American Christians have never experienced before.
David Kinnaman (’96) is president of The Barna Group and author of You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith.
Dave Keehn (M.A. ’97) is associate professor of Christian education at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology and pastor of youth and college at South Shores Church in Dana Point, Calif.