Christianity Isn’t Dying, Cultural Christianity Is

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You’ve heard it suggested the U.S. is simply Europe on a 50 year delay. Supposedly most churches will be museums before our grandchildren reach adulthood.

Though new numbers from Pew Research released this month point to a decline in American Protestants, no serious scholar believes Christianity in America is on a trajectory of extinction. And, as a Ph.D. researcher and practicing evangelical Christian, I say to those who’ve read recent reports and come to that conclusion, “Not so fast.”

You see, many in the U.S. who identify as Christian do so only superficially. These cultural Christians use the term but do not practice the faith. Now it seems many of them are giving up the Christian label, and those cultural or nominal Christians are becoming “nones,” people with no religious label.

Christian nominalism is nothing new. As soon as any belief system is broadly held, people are motivated to adopt it, even with a low level of connection. Yet, much of the change in our religious identification is in nominal Christians no longer using the term and, instead, not identifying with any religion.

In other words, the nominals are becoming the nones.

I’ve seen this in my own family. Growing up in an Irish Catholic community outside New York City, the Catholic Church was the church we didn’t go to. Today, I am an evangelical Christian, and I attend church like one, but most of my extended family do not attend church, and don’t bother to call themselves Catholics any longer. The nominals became the nones.

Furthermore, the cultural value of identifying as a Christian is decreasing. When that happens, those whose connection to Christianity was more an identifying mark than a deeply held belief find they don’t need that identity anymore. The label does not matter.

When considering why someone does or does not label themselves a Christian, we see three broad ways people identify as Christian.

On a survey, cultural Christians mark “Christian” rather than another world religion, because they know they are not Hindu, Jewish, etc., or because their family always has.

Churchgoing Christians identify as such, because they occasionally attend worship services.

On the other hand, conversion Christians claim to have had a faith experience in which they were transformed, resulting in a deeply held belief.

The recent growth in nones, I believe, comes primarily from cultural and churchgoing Christians no longer using a religious identification.

The obvious question is why the decline at all and what does the future hold? Some may say this sounds exactly like what has happened in Europe. Well, yes and no.

Europe’s religious decline happened for different reasons than what we are seeing here — bloody religious wars and a church/state alliance led to mandated religions which led to distaste and rejection of religion. That’s not the case in the U.S., and I don’t think we will go that path.

Yet, there is movement in religious identification that should cause us to consider three ramifications.

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Ed Stetzer About Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research, one of the best and most-quoted Christian research organizations in the world. He has planted churches in multiple states; trained pastors across the US and on six continents; and taught at 14 seminaries. Author or co-author of 12 books, Stetzer is a leading voice among evangelicals. He is a contributing editor or columnist for several publications, including Christianity Today, Outreach Magazine, The Christian Post, and Facts and Trends.


  • http://www.astudentsmusingsonjesus.blogspot.com John Hundley

    Love it. I’ve been telling people this for years, thanks for putting it into writing!

    John

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=616066858 Todd Miechiels

    Ed,

    As we continue to go around Atlanta and invite “Christians” to share their testimony on video and the internet with humility and reverence, I believe we are intersecting with a ton of cultural Christians. I am just a guy from the marketplace who is following a call so these are just layman observations. But as I meet, listen, and serve more people from within the Christian community, I see what you describe here. The nature of our ministry challenges people into a binary decision of the mind and heart, of whether they will take an action step, or do nothing. As we wait for wise and Godly leaders to help us steward this young movement we’ve been entrusted with, we try our best to help those that wish to, live out their faith.

    I’ve seen patterns emerge from my many one on one invite/encounters that I think syncs up with what you are saying here, and wrote about it on the blog:
    http://the315project.com/blog/move-your-people-up-and-to-the-right/

    Hope to meet you someday and drink up some perspective and wisdom to help guide The 3:15 Project towards God’s will.

    Peace!
    Todd

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