The recent statistics released by The Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life showing a decline among Americans who consider themselves religious are sure to alarm many concerned about the spiritual state of the nation. For evangelicals, the most potentially jarring of these statistics shows that for the first time in its history the United States does not have a Protestant majority. The study found that about 20% of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15% in the last five years. The sobering reality in all this for evangelicals is that, although our churches continue to grow, our evangelistic effectiveness has significantly lagged behind the US population growth. This study is a clear challenge to evangelicals to live up to our name and proclaim the good news in a culture where we can no longer assume common theological foundations. Evangelical Christians have to learn to preach the gospel in a culture where we are no longer part of the Protestant majority. This is not necessarily a bad thing though. A few observations about the data shows that the picture is not as bleak as it may seem.
The greatest decline among those claiming to be Christians are from mostly mainline denominations, which long ago failed to hold to the core teachings of the Bible and became little more than social clubs with “do good” intentions masquerading as true Christianity. These liberal denominations have not been leading people to a relationship with the risen Christ as the only way to be forgiven and have a restored relationship with God. They have led people to seek vague expressions of religious experience, in the name of “getting in touch with one’s “spirituality”, while wholly ignoring the foundational biblical challenge to die to any shred of self-righteousness and, instead, trust in Christ alone, as Savior and Lord of all. This thinking reduces Christ to a merely a great moral teacher, rather than the Son of God who took on a human nature so he could be the one mediator between God and man, they have lost the very heart of the gospel. The demise of these denominations is not the demise of Christianity. It would be preferable that these churches are revived to embrace and teach a true gospel again. But short of that, the best thing would be for them to die completely. Then the lines between true Christian faith and the secularized version would be more clearly drawn, and the gospel will be seen as the radical, life transforming good news it really is.
Another reason for hope is that in this generation, the most pronounced shift away from religion in the United States came during the 1990s, not in the last decade (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/metro/documents/aris030609.pdf). It’s likely that September 11th greatly slowed the move toward secularism. Churches were packed in the months after, and although that initial surge did not last long, the effects of graphic displays of our own depravity, mortality, and frailty, drew many back to God. There is also little doubt that the recent dramatic economic chaos is crushing human pride and feelings of security in the treasures of this world. Such economic downturns often lead people to rethink where they are finding their security. It is also heartening to realize that the greatest growth among Christian groups has been among those with orthodox, conservative, theological commitments, and perhaps the most significant growth among evangelicals has come among those in the young Calvinist movement of which Time magazine surprisingly called one of the top 10 ideas changing the world right in our day.
The political and economic instability of our times is sure to be a factor in drawing people back to time tested and traditional truths of the Bible that emphasize a sovereign God who still intervenes in our lives to seek and save the lost and bring the shalom we all desperately need.