Church Window
 USA Today
reported in the March 9 edition that "Almost all denominations

[are] losing ground" in America. For those who study these matters, as I do routinely, this was no great surprise. We are, said the article, "a land of freelancers." The percentage of people who call themselves some kind of Christian has dropped 11% in a generation. The Bible Belt is less Baptist and the Rust Belt is less Catholic. This cuts across all lines. People are exploring new spiritual frontiers and searching for new approaches to faith. Many are simply dropping out totally.

These shifts have occurred over an eighteen year period, according to the newest American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). Despite the growth of immigration, which has added 50 millions new people to the nation, almost all denominations have lost ground since 1990. Barry Kosmin, who is this survey's co-author, says, "More than ever before, people are just making up their own stories of who they are. They say, 'I'm everything. I'm nothing. I believe in myself.'"

The survey said that 15% of all Americans claim no religion (none), up from 8% in 1990. This is the fastest growing religious category in the United States, hands down. This category outranks all others except for Roman Catholic and Baptist. The challenge to Christianity comes not from other religions, such as Islam or Hinduism, but from "none."

Catholic strongholds in New England and the Midwest have faded as immigrants and retirees have moved to the Sun Belt. Bishops in the Midwest and Northeast are forced to close parishes while bishops in the South scramble.

Baptists make up 15.8% of those surveyed, just very slightly less than the "none" category. This number dropped from 19.5% in 1990. Mainline Protestant denominations continue their sharp decline as well.

But don't take too much comfort in any of this if you prefer the label "Christian" or "non-denominational" or just "born again." This figure was 14.2%, essentially the same as in 1990. So, and this is important to note, even if mainline people are shifting to evangelical churches, which some are clearly doing, this is not stopping the loss of people overall.

My personal observation is that very few congregations are growing by actually reaching "real converts" week-by-week. The evidence that biblical evangelism is actually transforming significant numbers of people is very small. What amazes me is that the ordinary Christian in the typical church doesn't really care. Anyone think we need a real, God-sent, spiritual awakening anytime soon?

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  1. John Paul Todd April 7, 2009 at 7:15 am

    John, I liked your weekly newsletter so much I posted it on my blog yesterday (hope you don’t mind). It fit in with what I had been posting for the last week or so-including a piece by Rolland Allen on “The Coming of the Missionary Spirit”.
    I also showed my Baptist heritage a bit, I’m afraid.In one post I mentioned 3 baptists that had blessed the Church, each from a different century, then I added 3 more including Walter Rauchenbusch. Putting it all together as I meditated during Lent was a blessed experience for me.
    Let me just presume on your kindness a little more. I have come to believe that one of the things the Spirit of God is showing the churches today are the consequences of following only one ‘model’ of the blessed Gospel. When we do this and concentrate on a single interpretation of the atonement, for example,we skew the truth of God in Christ. We have so stressed the “substitute” model of Christ’s cross, that we have been blind to the equally rich model of “representative” as our Head. In one He does all the ‘vicarious’suffering for us so that we do not have to suffer for sins; in the other He calls us to suffer with Him(to die in order to live). This is also the ‘union in Christ’ model which has yielded such rich treasures for many in the past.
    All of us need to “stay on message” in these days of opportunity-the many faced glorious gospel of the Captain of our salvation.
    fellow-servant,John Paul

  2. Sam April 7, 2009 at 8:01 am

    here’s a stat for you John…
    Today, half of all churchgoers in the United States attend the largest 10 percent of churches. What often goes unoticed, however, are the fifty smaller churches that close their doors every week.
    – Skye Jethani, The Divine Commodity, p. 89

  3. jls April 7, 2009 at 8:15 am

    Hi John,
    Changes in affiliation over time, as reported in surveys like ARIS, occur for many reasons. They may reflect real changes in the belief systems of individuals. They may reflect changes in the perceived meaning of the labels themselves (e.g. the cultural connotations of terms like “born again”). They also reflect changes in the demographic composition of America.
    An opinion piece on this same topic in today’s WSJ noted that, in a recent Pew survey, one-fifth of people who identified themselves as “atheist” also said they believed in God. Go figure.
    In political polling, the percentage of voting-age people who identify themselves as Democrat/Republican/Independent is volatile; there are nontrivial segments who tend to affiliate with the winners of recent elections or with whatever group they perceive to be “in” or popular at any given time, often depending on recent news cycles. Political labels don’t say a whole lot about whether or how anyone will vote. In addition to the meaning of these labels, there is also an intensity or commitment factor that is crucially important but often goes unmeasured or unreported.
    Personally, I think it is much more useful to pay attention to survey items that measure objectively defined behaviors (e.g. weekly church attendance) or beliefs that are very specific (e.g. historic accuracy of the Bible), because the meaning of these terms is fairly stable.
    My hunch is that, in both politics and religion, there in an increasing tendency for Americans (especially younger ones) to fancy themselves as being above labels and group identification, because they see labels themselves (e.g. conservative versus liberal) as inherently divisive.

  4. P. Andrew Sandlin April 7, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    I could not agree more, John. Thank you for this timely post, my friend.

  5. Jack Isaacson April 11, 2009 at 5:49 am

    John, you wrote in December 15, 2008, The “Forced” Resignation of Richard Cizik, Part Three
    The “forced” resignation of Richard Cizik has brought a great deal of attention to evangelical Christianity in America and most of it is very negative. We live in a time when spiritual interest is actually rising but respect for the church is in sharp decline.
    Have you changed your position on what you wrote about “spiritual interest–rising” in light of this recent survey?

  6. John H. Armstrong April 11, 2009 at 6:48 am

    Spiritual interest is rising among Americans, especially younger Americans. The practice of religion, understood as formal observances, etc., is in decline. The spirituality is all over the place but the hunger is real.

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