Is atheism growing? Is the church dying? Is the image of non-believers towards the church becoming increasingly hostile? The answers might surprise you. In this interview, based on his recent research-based book, Glenn Stanton challenges many of these commonly accepted ideas within the church.
More About Our Guest
Glenn T. Stanton is the director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family. He debates and lectures extensively on the issues of gender, sexuality, marriage and parenting at universities and churches around the world.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.
Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: Today, we have on a guest who’s got a recent book that's coming out that's both interesting, provocative, and I think even timely.
Glenn Stanton has worked for the past 25 years as a full-time researcher, writer, speaker on a number of topics and works as the director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family. And he has a recent book that's just coming out called, The Myth of the Dying Church, that I can't wait to get into. But first, Glenn, thanks so much for joining us.
Glenn Stanton: Hey, Sean, you bet. And Scott, good to be with you guys.
Sean McDowell: Well, you've written a book and you've called it, The Myth of the Dying Church. What exactly is the myth you're debunking and why choose to write a book on this topic now?
Glenn Stanton: Well, interestingly, I mean, it's a myth that so many people take as just absolute concrete fact and that is that the church is shrinking and particularly that we hear the phrase, "Young people are leaving the church in droves." And some people have even radically said that Christianity is declining at such a rate that there may not even be a church in the next 10, 15 years.
And so, what I'm doing is just very strongly and unapologetically debunking that myth. Not only is it not true, but the best parts of Christianity are growing within the United States and growing through most parts of the world in a wonderful way. Where we could say that even today is perhaps one of the most golden ages of the church since Pentecost.
Scott Rae: Glenn, if that's true, and we'll get into more of the data that supports your thesis in a minute, but given that that's true, how has this myth gotten such traction culture-wide today?
Glenn Stanton: Yeah, no, no, no, that's the big, big question. And in the book I talk about whenever a pastor will say or a teacher will say, "Well, as we know, the church is shrinking precipitously. As we know, young people are leaving the church." It's prefaced with that, you know, this is a basic fact that all of us know. Well, it's not. And so how did it get spread so much?
And I open the book with a little illustration of Chicken Little. In Chicken Little, that story, she gets bonked on the head with an acorn and she goes around, "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" And nearly every culture, a lot of Western cultures, have a Chicken Little story that they tell their kids. That is because, somehow, the bad news just takes off, even without any kind of foundation. And that's exactly what's happening here.
And I would say that many of the people who have started this myth are, I mean, unfortunately, many of the people that do kind of what we do as apologetics work, it's the advertising thing of, if you've got the answer, you've got to highlight the problem. So, we as the apologetics people, we as the teachers, we need to teach your kids how to hang on to their faith. Why? Because kids are leaving the faith in droves. And so you really need us and you really need what we're doing.
Well, you can simply say your kids need to be stronger in their faith and kids are pretty much hanging in there in biblical churches. So, it is unfortunate that this is being spread. Somehow as Christians, the people of good news, we like bad news. We like to trumpet bad news for some reason and that is what's happening here. And I think it becomes "true," if you will, simply by confident repetition. And that's what we're seeing here. It gets repeated time and time and time again because good people, who really haven't looked at the research, but good people say it and they throw out some stats here or there and they say it very confidently and people believe it. People are taking it in.
The other is news headlines. And I demonstrate this in the book of, you know, The Washington Post, New York Times, major newspapers will come out reporting on a Pew study that says, oh, “Christianity Declining While the Nones Increasing Tremendously." And they're basically doing journalism off a press release. But when you dig into the actual study that Pew put out itself, you see that no, what's been reported is not the case.
And so, that's what I try to provide the reader in this book, is just digging a little deeper and looking at what these reports actually say. And getting into the nuance too, that, okay, this true conclusion is true because of some of these important nuances that people aren't really considering. One, because it's a little difficult to dig into them. It makes for a bit of a confusing story. We just like the black-and-white answer. But the answer is often found in the nuances which we can talk a little bit about here.
Sean McDowell: Now a moment ago you used the phrase “biblical churches,” that they're holding strong, but mainline churches are not. What's the difference between those two? And what are the difference in terms of the statistical facts about young people or even those churches losing members, staying the same, or gaining members?
Glenn Stanton: Yeah, well, Sean, that is where the big story is, absolutely. It's the difference between the mainline churches and what I would call the biblical churches, or evangelical churches. Those churches that preach the word of God, they teach the word of God, they call people to discipleship. Whereas the mainline churches, there are mainline churches that are technically mainline, and we all know them in our communities, the pastor there, he teaches the word of God, he is faithful, he believes in evangelism. But then you have, unfortunately, too many mainline churches where they're questioning the deity of Christ. “No, he didn't actually raise from the dead.” “No, sin is not a real thing; it's a psychological construct.” “No, same-sex marriage and homosexuality are just wonderful.”
Those mainline churches that are running away from Orthodox Christianity, guess what? They are imploding. People cannot get out of those churches fast enough. Pew tells us from 2007 to 2014, those mainline Protestant churches lost at least 5 million adult members and it could be as high as 7.3 million lost members. That's just from 2007 to 2014.
Now the evangelical churches, those that are faithful to teaching Scripture, you know, those are the megachurches, those are the churches that most of us go to and most of your listeners will go to. Those, between 2007 and 2014, they've grown by absolute numbers, by about 2 million at least. And Pew says, within margin of error, it could be increased by 5 million.
So, mainline churches bailing on authentic Christianity, biblical Christianity, they are declining. I mean, it's like they're flying their plane straight into the ground. People can't leave those churches quick enough. Where they're going, typically, is over to the faithful evangelical churches that teach the vibrant and true and faithful word of God. Those churches are increasing.
In fact, Greg Smith — and I quote him from the Pew Research Center — he's one of the key researchers there that looks at this issue, and he was asked by Christianity Today, "Is evangelicalism dying?" He says, "Absolutely not. There is nothing in these data that we have to suggest that Christianity is dying, that evangelicalism is dying, that Catholicism is dying." And he ends saying, "This is not the case whatsoever."
And so, you know, there's data after data after data of conclusion from solid, strong research. And not just one-off research from this one study here or there. It tells us and shows us demonstrably that really the evangelical church has been growing ever since evangelicalism was established with Jonathan Edwards or D. L. Moody or Billy Graham, things like that. Christ's church, his faithful church, continues to chug along, and it will continue.
Scott Rae: Glenn, can you give us an example of one of these mainline churches or maybe what you would call less than biblical churches that shifted gears and moved away from orthodox faith and then what happened to them? You cite several examples in the book of churches like this.
Glenn Stanton: Yeah, one big one, Scott, is EastLake Church in Seattle. Okay, these people imploded within a weekend. What EastLake Church was was your typical multi-site kind of hipster multi-campus evangelical church up in Seattle and Ryan Meeks was the pastor. That church was gaining about a hundred new members a week, just exploding. It was vibrant, good, good teaching.
Well he decided, he came to a point where he said, "You know what? We're going to change our position on homosexuality and we're not only going to be kind and nice to gay and lesbian people," all churches should do that, "but we are going to embrace it. And say that not only is it a good thing, it's something that we should lift up."
Now, this is a church full of cool hipsters who want to be relevant and things. Those people left the church in just dramatic numbers. He said within a few weeks, their budget tanked by millions of dollars. They had to lay off much of their staff, closed many of their campuses. And it's interesting because they had a lesbian staffer, she was the one that initiated Ryan's change of thought here. She had to be laid off-
Scott Rae: Oh my goodness.
Glenn Stanton: -because of the decline of the church. Yeah.
So they take this change and say, "Okay, we're going to move away from biblical Christianity on the issue of sexuality." And guess what? I mean it's like Ryan Meeks handed out an invitation to his parishioners to please go someplace else. And that's exactly what they did.
Sean McDowell: Not a lot of statistics kind of shock me, because if they do I think maybe there's something wrong with the study. But there was one in your book that relates to this example that really made me pause and think, wait a minute. And it's where you said that people with same-sex attraction are 2.5 times more likely to attend a church that holds to a historic view of sex in marriage than a church that would be gay-affirming. Can you unpack and explain that and why that might be the case?
Glenn Stanton: Yeah, and I'm glad that you pointed that out. I mean, that was just fascinating because what it means, and then I'll explain it in just a minute, but you see these churches in all of our communities, the rainbow flag banner goes out and it says, "We welcome all." And when those churches put those banners out, guess what? People aren't coming through their doors, they're leaving. Even the very people that they want to attract.
Now this research that you're talking about, saying that gay-identified and lesbian-identified individuals are 2.5 times more likely to go to what the gay community would call non-affirming churches, biblical churches. They are two and a half times more likely to attend those churches than the welcoming rainbow flag churches.
Now, the research was done by two researchers at Columbia University. They are known as very gay-friendly scholars. And their research, they wanted to find out the harm and danger to same-sex identified people when they go to "non-affirming" churches. Well, what they found was the exact opposite. I mean, not only are they not harmful, that people themselves are choosing to go to these churches. And they are just scratching their heads. Why in the world would gay- and lesbian-identified people choose to go to a church that is "hostile" to them?
Well, here's the deal, these people are going to the churches and they find out that they're not hostile. They don't affirm their sexuality, but they're loved, they're appreciated, they're welcomed. And those people want to go to a church where they hear the word of God taught. They want to go to a church where people are rejoicing that they're saved, that they're saved from real sin, that Jesus has really done something in their lives. And you don't get those at the metropolitan community gay churches. You don't get that at the mainline churches. You get it at the churches that most of us go to.
And lo and behold, gay- and lesbian- identified individuals, they're more likely to go to those churches because it's what I call ... it's not 2% Christianity, it's whole milk Christianity, it's the real deal. And if you're going to make a commitment to a church, then you're going to want to make a commitment to a church that really is a church, that really teaches Christianity and we find that time and time again with the gay and lesbian individuals themselves.
Scott Rae: Glenn, you point out, I think, in debunking this myth, that there's a lot of good news in the American church. But it seems that you're saying the really good news is happening south of the equator, in what you're referring to as the global South. What's going on in terms of church growth in the global South? And I'm particularly interested in how that compares with the growth of Islam. Because all we hear about, it seems like in a lot of the media, is how Islam is exploding in the developing world. But we don't hear so much about Christianity.
Glenn Stanton: Yes. No, that's exactly right. And that's really where the big, big story is. Phillip Jenkins, at Baylor University, he also has an academic appointment at University of Pennsylvania where he's taught forever. And he was really the guy to start writing about Christianity in the global South. And what he means there is primarily, of course, south of the border or south of the equator, that is South America and Africa, the continent of Africa. But it also includes, not technically in the South, but up in Asia and up in to China. He says those, if you will, developing world countries, Christianity — and it's interesting, okay, so he's a professional scholar, careful scholar, he's a sociologist, and they seldom use like over-the-top language — but he says Christianity is absolutely, and he uses the word exploding around the world.
Scott Rae: Wow.
Glenn Stanton: And he says yes, we think that Islam is the one growing and Islam is the one getting all the news, but he says that's not actually the case. Yes, Islam is growing, it is exponentially growing, but not as quickly, and really nowhere near as close as large as Christianity is.
Now in a way it's growing at a quicker rate, but the question of what that's going to be in the next couple of decades, Professor Jenkins says, no, Christianity will continue to be the dominant world faith. It is currently the dominant world faith by a large margin, and it will continue to be the dominant world faith up into the end of this century.
But the big, big point that he makes, which is really fascinating is, he says two things. And he says this very, very, very tongue in cheek, he said if Christianity wanted to get more news and more attention for how much they are growing and people see them, he said maybe their leaders should start taking more hostages. He said this in 2007 or 2008, you couldn't say that today.
But he's saying, no, we know about Islam because of radical Islam being in the news and we're seeing the immigrants and all that kind of stuff. But he says throughout China, there are far more Christians in China than there are members of the Communist party there. And the government realizes that; they see that. In fact, there's no way that they can really count all the millions of new Christians coming to faith within China.
In Africa, there have been in the last 10 years more theological seminaries built in just one or two of the countries in Africa, than there have been in the rest of the world. Christianity is imploding in a very good way, exploding throughout Africa. And we see that in terms of like the Anglican governance of those African bishops that are holding tight to orthodoxy. And we saw this in the United Methodist Church just recently, that it was the African leaders of the United Methodist Church that voted not to go in the same-sex marriage and gay clergy ordination. Those guys are rocking it, and it's happening in Africa, it's happening in South America, and it's happening, in many ways, along Asia.
I did this, too, because I wanted to think about young people and look at young people, and I have a lot of data. But it hit me as I was doing the research, why don't I go look at the annual reports for InterVarsity that ministers on college campuses, and then Young Life, who ministers around the world to young people. And what was fascinating is their work domestically, both InterVarsity and Young Life, it's greater today than it ever has been. And they're seeing increases in various works of new groups started, new kids reached out to, new staff hired. About 30%, 20% domestically. But when you look at their work that is happening globally, I mean, it's like 200% increase, 350% increase. I mean, Dr. Jenkins is exactly right, it's exploding absolutely.
So the trajectory of Christianity in the United States, around the world, I mean, any business leader would die to have those kinds of growth numbers. And yes, in places like Europe, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, it seems to be dying. But those are the fast exceptions to really what is happening to Christianity around the world.
Sean McDowell: So, are you saying that U.S. is not following the trajectory of Europe and becoming more secularized and an exception to the secularization thesis? Is that what you're arguing?
Glenn Stanton: That's exactly what I'm saying, but not only me, there were some relatively recent research done jointly at Harvard and Indiana University. These two young sociologists, secular people, and they wanted to test what they called the secularization thesis that as a country moves and becomes more modernized, more affluent, more materialistic, that they will increasingly become more secularized just like Europe does.
Well, they tested that in the U.S. and what they tested was not just people's religious involvement like church attendance, prayer, Bible reading. But they also measured intensity of that belief. Not only do you pray, but how often do you pray? How serious do you pray? What do you pray for? How serious do you read the Scriptures? Do you attend church every week? Do you attend sometimes more than once a week? And what they said was, that the United States absolutely is contrary to the secularization thesis. Not only do they not see it — Harvard and Indiana University — not only do they not see United States becoming more secular, they see religious intensity. And when they say religious intensity, they mean Christianity, growing greater.
And so they say, actually the United States is not just this oddball and one-off. The United States, faith-wise, knows where it's going. It is very intentional. And that intentional growth is toward greater spiritual vitality. I mean, it's just remarkable. And again, this is Harvard research showing this, these are not Christian researchers, these are not researchers who have any dog in the fight of making Christianity look good.
Scott Rae: It reminds me, Glenn, of the words of the late Richard John Newhouse, the Catholic priest who said that the notion that we are a secular society has everything going for it except empirical evidence.
Glenn Stanton: You know what? Newhouse was so good about turning a phrase. I remember he also said there's stupidity and there's stupidity on stilts. And then he referred to somebody that he was really going to take to task.
And that's exactly right, and the data is just not there. And one of the things, Scott and Sean, that I do in the book and after I present ... well, let me tell you this, when I started the book, I wanted to have one good solid research chapter. I was going to present the research in one chapter. My first round of writing, I realized I needed to divide it into three chapters because there was just too much research in there. And then as my editor went through it, he said, "I think that this third chapter could be broken up into two other chapters." And I said, "You know what? I completely agree."
So, I went from one research chapter to five different research chapters. And then I back up and follow those research chapters, just asking the reader to do this little exercise: If young people are leaving the church in droves, if the church is declining precipitously, then look around your own city, what about your church? Is it declining? Is there crickets in there? How many youth pastors do you know that are out of work right now? Those in insurance industry, the retail industry, we hear all kinds of people that are losing their jobs in the economy today. But not in the church. There's nobody who can really say, "Okay, that pastor, he's out of work because his church just dried up like a dry river gulch."
Look at your own church, look at your own kid's youth group, look at the churches within your community, do you see more of them boarded up? Or do you see new construction going on? And everywhere you go, in every city that you go to, there are a handful of churches that are just flourishing and flourishing well.
Now, there are some churches that are, if you will, going out of business. But those are the sort of mom-and-pop, blue-hair churches that are not interested in changing, they are not interested in having vibrant worship. They are just super, super old school like a hardware store that never just got with the current age. So it's not Christianity there that's shrinking, it's just the church themselves refuses to understand the world is changing and how do you reach out to the people there.
And that's very significant, that's very important for us to know and appreciate.
Scott Rae: Glenn, that's really a helpful point. But one final question for you, we often hear a lot about negative perceptions of the church by the culture at large. But your claim in the book is that the data shows that the views of non-Christians toward the church is actually largely positive today.
Glenn Stanton: I was absolutely astounded by that. And this is Pew data, again one of the best organizations looking at this kind of stuff. And then some other research data as well. But they go into what are people's attitudes toward the church. And things like, "Do you believe that the church in a community is a force for good? Somewhat agree, blah, blah, blah, blah, you know, that kind of. And there was really remarkable for those who said very much agree, somewhat agree. You know, those top two categories. Even atheists themselves, while not the majority, not the majority of atheists, but like 40% or 45%, and that's not the exact number, but of atheists said, "Yes, I think churches in our community do a good job of holding up moral standards." Or, "I think churches," and this was very high even among atheists, "I think churches in this community do a very good job of reaching out to the poor, feeding them and caring for them."
You know, things like the question, "Do you think churches in your community are a wholesale good or a wholesale negative?" The general populations says, "Oh my goodness, yes, they're a very strong positive force." But we think that so many people are against the church because the media tells us that! I mean, they've got it in for the church. They've got it in for traditional values and biblical values in a restrained sexuality and things like that.
So we listen to that kind of stuff, but when you go to polls like this and you just ask people, it really is surprising that people are like, "No, that church down the street? No, I don't go there, I'm not a part of that. But you know what? They're always doing pretty cool, exciting things. And my kids go to VBS there or Reformation parties around Halloween." Things like that, they are seen as positive.
Sean McDowell: Glenn, you've really done the church a service with this book. And I appreciate the tone in which you took, because you're challenging some narratives that have been strongly held and strongly proclaimed and strongly believed, yet you're not doing it to embarrass anybody or call anybody out. But you're just saying, "Hey, if there's any group that should care about the truth, it's the church. We can do better."
So you're going to challenge our readers, I think you're going to challenge the church as a whole. You certainly challenged me to reconsider certain ideas that I have believed and adopted about the church. And I can't thank you enough for taking the time and work to put this book together.
So I want to commend your book, The Myth of the Dying Church, to our audience. And I hope it gets the wide audience in reading and just interaction that it deserves. So, thanks for writing a great book and thanks for coming on the show.
Glenn Stanton: Sean, that's very kind. Scott, I appreciate it. It was good to talk to you guys.
Scott Rae: Great to have you on with us.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” To learn more about us and today's guest, Glenn Stanton, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically.
If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.