Generations and the Church: Part 6
Millennials are not flocking to the church in droves, but first, Christianity isn’t dying. The statistics simply don’t show Christianity dying in the United States.
In my denomination we have seen so many churches shuttered in the last two decades. But some are growing. There are a handful of churches that are growing, but it’s not 1995 or 85 anymore.
In the United States, church attendance is down about 10% over the last forty years. So, is that good news? No! Is it that Christianity will be gone in three generations, like we hear so often? No.
There are simply no statistical indications that Christianity is close to dying, or we are close to Europe, as people often say. In the 40’s, Gallup discovered that 96% of Americans believed in God. When asked the same question in 2011, 94% of people said they believe in God, and so a 2% drop is not the “woe is me” kind of statistical crisis. Now, I think that we have a challenge and that challenge is what people mean by “God”. So if we take that into account, that is a different game, and I agree with Christian Smith. He talks about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I call it “Be Good, Feel Good, Live your Life” because Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is quite a mouthful, but the fact that many of our churched young people believe, answered questions with psychology rather than theology and believe in a Christianity that’s not actually Christianity. My worry is not that the church won’t be here in three generations, my worry is the church we have won’t be worth having because of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It is a shell of the good news that the true Jesus is.
To some extent when you read David Kenneman’s research with the Barna’s Group you know he’ll say yes, 90% believe in God. When you look at a traditional, evangelical, Christian world view, do you believe the bible is true? Is Jesus the way the truth and the life? That stat has dropped significantly over the years.
Barna’s data tends to be more negative than Gallup’s data or the social survey data that the US government does, so you kind of have to pick your way through that. The fine folks down at Baylor often take on Barna’s data in the press, even in the Wall Street Journal, saying well that’s not accurate. So you’ve got different sociologists that interpret the data in different ways or give different results on a survey. So the way I say it it’s not as bad as we think because it was never as good as we thought.
We were thinking and we heard that 40% of the United States is born-again, is evangelical; it was never that big. It was never that true. In our glory days, our golden days were never that glorious.
There are people who said they are Christian whose neighbors would have spit out their beverage on their porch if they’d heard them answer that survey question, because they would have said, “You are not Christian!” But everyone claimed to be a Christian because there were social expectations for that, whereas today we are much freer to not pick anything. So born-again, Kenneman pointed out, when you ask the questions, “Do you believe the Bible is accurate and do you share your faith?” The number of people who describe themselves as evangelical drops dramatically over those who say I’m born again. If you were to re-take the poll 20 years ago, 30 years ago, and ask it more accurately and people answered more honestly, you would have discovered that there were a significant portion of “none’s” in the 70’s, the 80’s and the 90’s. Maybe it wouldn’t rival what we have today, but people just feel freer to say, “Yeah, I’m a Christian.”
The number of people who pray; the number of people who believe in the divinity of Jesus has remained, as Robert Wuthnow, the rock star of church sociologists out of Princeton pointed out, it’s remained virtually the same for 40 years. Now what’s different is how people interpret it. Two thirds of the Millennials believe that God of the bible is the same God of all religions. So, they are the same God. The God of the bible is the true God. They also believe that they are the same god; that all religions have the same god.
Those ideas that got root there with the Traditionalists and that Picasso represented and are coming to full fruition now. So, in short, is Christianity going to be gone in three generations? No. Do we have a lot of work to do for the future to be bright? We have to understand that we are in a different world that looks at life differently. I love the story that is actually told in his book on leaving Christianity, where he talks about this friend of his who is questioning his faith and his father, a minister, ships him off, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. But then he says to Drew, he’s so rationalistic, I’m influenced by Eastern thinking and he’s so rationalistic, I cannot relate to any of his arguments. So his father didn’t understand post-modernism; or true for you and not for me. So he’s actually having arguments that are meaningful to him and their missing his son. My worry is that we won’t catch up with where thinking has gone and so we’ll still be having conversations with where it’s been, and then I don’t think the future is so bright. I don’t think Christianity died, I just think that we won’t be able to counter the psychological fog that distorts the gospel.
In many ways the idea that a person can be right and believe their right and everyone else is wrong is just too arrogant. So we have to come back answering questions a different way. We can no longer say, “Well, the bible says.” Not because the bible doesn’t say it, but because we don’t believe that the bible is the final word on that, and so the real question is, “Why does the bible say that?” If God is great and God is good, then His commandments and His instructions are actually great and good. So let’s start with the great and good part and then talk about, “Oh by the way, the bible says…”.