This article was published by The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor on Monday, April 22, 2019:
The current narrative – the “secularization thesis” – that America’s churches are in terminal decline is dead wrong according to two college professors who looked into it. Professors Landon Schnabel of Indiana University and Sean Bock of Harvard published their findings at Sociological Science:
Recent research argues that the United States is secularizing, that this religious change is consistent with the secularization thesis, and that American religion is not exceptional.
But we show that rather than religion fading into irrelevance as the secularization thesis would suggest, intense religion – strong affiliation, very frequent practice, literalism, and evangelicalism – is persistent and, in fact, only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States. (emphasis added)
We also show that in comparable countries, intense religion is on the decline or already at very low levels. Therefore, the intensity of American religion is actually becoming more exceptional over time. We conclude that intense religion in the United States is persistent and exceptional in ways that do not fit the secularization thesis.
Gallup has repeatedly expounded on that thesis. On Thursday, Gallup reported that since 2000 church membership in the U.S. has fallen, modestly at first but accelerating recently. Twenty years ago, 70 percent of Americans said they were members of a church or a synagogue. Today, said Gallup, that has declined by 20 points to just 50 percent. Said Gallup: “The decline in church membership is consistent with larger societal trends in declining church attendance and an increasing proportion of Americans with no religious preference.”
The decline among Millennials (born 1980-2000) was equally drastic. Twenty years ago, 62 percent of Generation Xers belonged to a church while among Millennials today just 42 percent say they belong to a church.
Gallup concluded, based on this poll, that the “United States is far less religious than it used to be,” adding:
The rate of U.S. church membership has declined sharply in the past two decades after being relatively stable in the six decades before that. A sharp increase in the proportion of the population with no religious affiliation, a decline in church membership among those who do have a religious preference, and low levels of church membership among millennials are all contributing to the accelerating trend.
Gallup reached the same conclusion following another study it recently released as part of its ongoing analysis of religion in America. When asked, “How important would you say religion is in your own life – very important, fairly important or not very important?, the cohort Gallup quizzed showed a drop from 58 percent saying religion was “very important” in 2012 to 50 percent in 2018.
When that same cohort was asked, “Did you, yourself, happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days, or not?,” 32 percent of them said Yes, down from 42 percent in 2009. Of even greater concern was the number who answered Never. In 1998, just 10 percent said they never attend church. In 2018, that number jumped nearly threefold, to 28 percent.
Culturally we are seeing significant erosion in the trust people have for institutions in general and churches in particular. We are also seeing a generational shift as the “joiner” older generation dies off and a generation of non-joiners comes on the scene.
Professor Scott Thumma, who teaches the same thing at Hartford Seminary, blamed the decline on young people delaying marriage and thus postponing starting a family.
But if one changes the questions, he gets different, and much more encouraging, answers. The two professors asked their respondents if they presently had a religious “affiliation.” If so, then they asked whether that affiliation was “strong” or “not strong.” Then they pressed further, asking those who claimed they had a strong religious affiliation how many times they attended church in a week and whether they believed in “biblical literalism,” or not. They asked them how many times a day they prayed, and whether or not they considered themselves as evangelicals.
They concluded that those who claimed a strong affiliation and then proved it with their changed behaviors were becoming a larger part of the church in America. The professors called them “exceptional”:
We have shown that American religion is becoming increasingly exceptional in its intensity. Rather than religion as a whole declining and fading into irrelevance … the political backlash appears to be emptying the more moderate categories of American religion.
Emptying is the correct word to describe what’s happening. Glenn Stanton, the director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, says that the church of “real believers” has never been stronger:
Religious faith in America is going the way of the Yellow Pages and travel maps, we keep hearing. It’s just a matter of time until Christianity’s total and happy extinction, chortle our cultural elites. Is this true? Is churchgoing and religious adherence really in “widespread decline,” so much so that conservative believers should suffer “growing anxiety”?
Two words: Absolutely not.
Stanton was interviewed by Jerry Newcombe for D. James Kennedy Ministries recently, during which he said that the declines were occurring in churches that had abandoned the Gospel:
They are bailing on the basics of Christianity, and, guess what?, the people are bailing on them. People are leaving those churches as if the buildings are on fire, and do you know where they are going? They are not going nowhere. They are going to the Biblically faithful churches, and those are the churches that are growing.
So, just what is the Gospel that changes behavior, that brings believers to their knees in prayer several times during the day, that persuades them that the Bible is God’s word? In attempting to answer, J. I. Packer, in his monumental work Knowing God, said, “First, one can know a great deal about God without much knowledge of Him. Second, one can know a great deal about godliness without much knowledge of God.” He contrasts two individuals attending a July 4th parade: one is a bystander, enjoying the passing throng of bands, performers, and bagpipers; the other is actually participating in the parade itself, carrying and playing his instrument.
Charles Spurgeon, the “prince of preachers,” in a sermon he gave in December 1870, spoke of his own personal testimony of his acceptance of the Gospel of Christ:
So to believe in our Lord means this: that I believe Him to be the Son of God, and believe all other truths concerning Him; that I also believe whatever He says to be the truth. In other words, I believe Him.
Yet more than this, I cast my soul upon His atoning merits that He may save it, and so believe upon Him, and furthermore, having so done I give myself up entirely to the Savior’s holy guidance.
I believe Him to be infallible as the director of my spirit. I feel a union with Him. I come to be in Him. His cause is my cause. My cause His cause – I believe into Him.
Gospel-preaching churches are feeding those who are hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Those who don’t, aren’t.
RenewAmerican.com: Is the American church dying?
CSMonitor.com: Church membership in US hits new low, Gallup poll shows
The New American: Methodists Vote to Retain Biblical Stand on Sexuality, Marriage
Amazon: Knowing God by J. I. Packer