You may have heard that Christianity in America is going the way of the Yellow Pages, and not just among young adults.
Back in 2015, Pew Research published their Religious Landscape Survey, which revealed a nearly 8 percent drop in just seven years from 78 percent of Americans identifying as Christian to 71 percent doing so, regardless of race, gender or education differences.
“The country is becoming less religious as a whole, and it’s happening across the board,” according to Pew, and the number of “nones,” those with no religious affiliation, rose dramatically from 13 percent in 2007 to 19 percent in 2015.
What the survey failed to capture, according to Ed Stetzer, professor of missiology at Wheaton College, is that the exodus from churches in America is comprised of nominal Christians, those in name only, who may have identified with a church but attended services rarely, if at all.
The nominals are the ones now checking “none” on religious surveys and checking out of the churches.
Stetzer observes that the number of “convictional” Christians, those committed to the faith and regularly practicing it, has remained steady over the last several decades, and they still comprise one-third of all who identify as Christians and one-quarter of the total U.S. population.
This is supported by a 2017 study conducted by Indiana and Harvard universities, which highlighted the persistent intensity of American religion.
The study revealed no decline at all in the percentage of Americans with a strong affiliation to their religion, but a noticeable decline among those with a weaker affiliation.
Conrad Hackett of Pew Research echoes this when he says, “People with low levels of religious commitment are now more likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated.”
This has led Stetzer to observe, “Christianity in America is not dying, but nominal or cultural Christianity is.”
For much of the 20th century, if not earlier, there was societal pressure to identify as Christian.
Church membership was viewed as a distinct advantage to one’s business or professional career, as well as a source of community, and this would certainly have appealed to nominal Christians.
Today, convictional Christians find themselves increasingly on the margins of society.
Church membership is seen as less of an advantage, even a disadvantage. Others view it as one more commitment in an already crowded schedule.
Therefore, nominal Christians find it convenient drop the label.
Similarly, much has been written about the millennials leaving the church in large numbers.
This is true, but only 11 percent of millennials who have left the church report having a strong faith in childhood, while 89 percent say they came from a home with weak faith and practice.
It seems that millennials raised with a nominal faith are most likely to identify as nones.
This is due not only to the failure of parents to adequately disciple their children to Christ, but also to the de-Christianization of many young people that occurs during their college years.
So, is Christianity in decline in America? Certainly, the number of those who self-identify as Christians has declined, but the decline is among nominal Christians.
The nominals become the nones, but the convictional Christians remain committed.
According to Stetzer, Christianity isn’t collapsing, it’s being clarified. The church is being more clearly defined.
He sees the departure of the nominals as a purifying of the church rather than its decline.
But is the church really more “pure” if the nominal Christians depart? God sees no differences among us, and everyone needs his word.
All of us are sinners in need of forgiveness, whether we are committed Christians, nominal Christians, practice a different religion or no religion at all.
All of us need to know that we are loved in spite of our sins, and the cross proclaims God’s self-sacrificial love for all people.
The cross is God’s judgment that you are forgiven for the sake of Jesus, who died for your sin and was raised from death to show that his sacrifice was sufficient payment-in-full for all sins.
It is to this good news that committed Christians remain committed.
This good news creates, sustains and grows the church in every age.
The Rev. John Armstrong is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Columbus, and may be reached at gracecolumbus.org.