First, Christians continue to lose what some have called a home-field advantage. Christianity is no longer the first choice of many seeking spiritual meaning, and identifying as Christian is not necessary to be an accepted part of society.
Second, the squishy middle is collapsing. It makes less sense to be a cultural Christian today. Better to be spiritual than religious, unless your religion matters to you, as it does to devout Roman Catholics, Protestants, and many others.
Third, Christianity is not collapsing, but it is being clarified. If you cut through the recent hype and look to studies such as the General Social Survey, you’ll find the U.S. is filled with vibrant Believers.
The survey shows the evangelical movement has remained generally steady from 1972 to 2010 (and, contrary to what you might have heard, the data include young adults), that church attendance has declined among mainline Protestants, and that the nones have increased. But Christianity has not collapsed.
Other examples of resiliency abound.
Each year, Gallup asks Americans whether they consider themselves a born-again or evangelical Christian. Since 1992, the percentage has fluctuated from a low of 36 percent in 1993 to a high of 47 percent in 1998. The 2011 yearly aggregate is 42 percent, very similar to the percentages over the past eight years.
So, Christianity has hardly been replaced by the nones.
If not extinction, what then does the future look like? I believe if trends continue the future will look more like the present-day Pacific Northwest. There, we find a majority of the population is spiritual but not religious, yet vibrant churches and devout Christians abound.
For example, in the Foursquare Church (a mid-size Pentecostal denomination), the Northwest District oversees 150 churches. Fifteen years ago, 66 of those churches did not exist. Those 66 churches alone report 40,000 new believers. Similar examples of such vibrant growth, there and elsewhere, demonstrate the point.
So, in an increasingly secular environment we have vibrant congregations. That’s the future.
It’s true that many mainline church buildings in America, like their European counterparts, have converted into shops, concert halls, and museums. But I find it telling that churches like Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Ky., are buying back former cathedrals and filling them anew with vibrant young congregations.
Even in the shadow of the decline of cultural and nominal religion, the future of vibrant Christianity in America is all around us. The future of Christianity in America is not extinction but clarification that a devout faith is what will last.
Christianity in America isn’t dying; cultural Christianity is. I am glad to see it go.
Ed Stetzer is president of LifeWay Research. This column is an expanded version of one which appeared in USA Today.