Daily Archives: October 12, 2012

6 Reflections on Protestant Decline in America

Protestants have lost their majority status in the United States, and the number of Americans with no religious affiliation is rising. Those are the two big conclusions of a recently released study of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in America. [1]

For the first time in American history, the United States does not have a Protestant majority. The adult Protestant population reached a new low of 48 percent. That’s down from the 1960s when two in three Americans identified themselves as Protestants. The report records declines in both mainline and evangelical numbers, and that many of these people have joined the ranks of “the Nones,” those who say they have no religion (now one in five Americans).

Reading deeper into the study, I wondered about two things. The study counted among the “Nones” those who say they believe in God, pray, and are spiritual but are not religious. I wonder if the study recognized that many evangelical Christians define themselves in this way—we often say (rather simplistically) “our church is not about religion, but about a relationship with God in Christ.” I also questioned when the study said the number of Protestants has decreased in part due to the growth of non-denominational churches. I know many non-denominational groups that consider themselves Protestant. And I know many non-denominational groups that do not emphasize being Protestant but still act and believe in Protestant ways. But I also know many non-denominational Christians who really aren’t Protestant at all, which makes counting this demographic difficult.

Even so, I do not doubt the broad trend that the Pew study has identified. In fact, the reality may be worse than what the Pew study suggests. In his recent book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics [2], New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes about the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity in America. He argues that Christian orthodoxy is losing ground to the many ascendant heresies of our day—new Gnosticism, prosperity gospel, new sects, spiritual narcissism, nationalism, and so on.

Why this trend? The Pew report only touches on a few of the reasons—but all kinds of causes have been suggested: a move away from the gospel, failure of Christians to live out their faith, identifying Christianity too closely with politics, suffocating materialism, the pluralism of our global age, a spiritual but post-Christian worldview pumped to the young through countless new media portals.

This trend does not quite fit the old secularization thesis—that societies become less religious the more modern they become. Spirituality and religious pluralism in America are on the rise. Nor does this trend say anything about the overall decline of Christianity. Because while Christianity is declining in the West, it is growing in the Global South and East.

Cause for Reflection

Nevertheless, American Christian leaders need to reflect long and hard about the trend that Pew is reporting. Here are a few quick observations.

(1) This is another reminder denominationalism is in decline.

Identification with a Protestant label such as Presbyterian or Baptist is no longer valued by many, and in some cases it is seen as a hindrance to Christian witness. That said, I am part of a denomination and think healthy denominations are still quite useful. But I realize that the trend is going in the other direction.

(2) Protestants (even evangelicals) have done a poor job of imprinting our identity on our children.

We have either focused on spiritual vibrancy without catechizing, or catechized without emphasizing spiritual vibrancy. Either way, we have lost ground with our youth. Church leaders need to think doubly hard about how we are going to reach and train up the next generation of Christians. We have to rethink the way we do children’s and youth ministry.

(3) There are three wrong responses to this Protestant decline.

One is to batten down the hatches and adopt a fortress mentality when it comes to our culture. Another is to emphasize a lowest common denominator Christianity that insists on as little as possible of Christian truth in order to connect with secular audiences. Still another is to redefine central tenets of the Christian faith and so accommodate the faith to the late modern world.

In contrast to these approaches, I believe we need to affirm a robust orthodox Christianity, even a confessional Christianity, that keeps Christ and the gospel central to everything we do and say. It should be confessional, but center focused; it should be gracious and not doctrinally belligerent on peripheral concerns.

(5) We need to re-examine how we define Christian discipleship in a culture coming apart.

The early Christians might help us here. They were known for their distinct way of life. They could tell others that following Jesus is a better way to live. Perhaps that is why they were called people of “the way.” The whole era of the early church is more and more relevant to our new cultural setting. They had the challenge of living for Christ in a pluralistic, pagan, pre-Christian environment. We have the challenge of living for Christ in a pluralistic, neo-pagan, post Christian environment. We can learn a lot from the early church.

(6) Some of us are used to thinking of America in Jerusalem or New Jerusalem-like categories.

Without being postmillennial about it, we grew up with the “city on the hill” image. Yet as our culture changes, some aspects of our society are starting to look a lot more like Babylon than Jerusalem. We are looking more like a mission field than a mission-sending center. In terms of evangelism, we can no longer assume that everyone around us is a theist who can draw on long-forgotten Sunday school lessons. More and more people have no church background at all. All of this means that we really do need to live and think like missionaries as our neighborhoods are populated with Muslims, Mormons, spiritualists, and Nones.

The Pew study is another cultural indicator. Take note of it. Talk about it with other Christian leaders. And get ready for the wonderful yet incredible challenge ahead of us—to be truly Christian in this new environment.

Article printed from The Gospel Coalition Blog: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc

URL to article: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/10/11/6-reflections-on-protestant-decline-in-america/

URLs in this post:

[1] Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in America.: http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

[2] Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics: http://www.amazon.com/Bad-Religion-Became-Nation%20Heretics/dp/1439178305?tag=thegospcoal-20

Farewell to the American Protestant Majority

According to a new study by the Pew Forum, Protestants are, for the first time in history, not a majority in the United States of America. I don’t think that’s anything for evangelical Protestants, or anyone else, to panic about.

Several years ago, I pointed out here that studies were showing a declining Protestant majority, and projections were being made for this very reality. Now, the surveys says we have a 48 percent plurality of Protestants. I wasn’t frantic about that several years ago, and I’m still not.

When working toward our “God and country” badges, my childhood Boy Scout troop was shuttled over to the neighborhood United Methodist church for sessions with the pastor about being good Christians and good citizens. I remember my Southern Baptist sensibilities being shocked when the pastor said, in response to a question, that he didn’t believe in angels or demons. The reigning cultural presence of mainline Protestantism served the same purpose as the “God and country” badge. Give us enough Christianity to fight the communists and save the Republic, they said, but let’s remember not to take it all too seriously.

That culture is over.

Frankly, we should be more concerned about the loss of a Christian majority in the Protestant churches than about the loss of a Protestant majority in the United States. Most of the old-line Protestant denominations are captive to every theological fad that has blown through their divinity schools in the past thirty years-from crypto-Marxist liberation ideologies to sexual identity politics to a neo-pagan vision of God-complete with gender neutralized liturgies. Should we lament the fact that the Riverside Avenue Protestant establishment is now collapsing under the weight of its own bureaucracy?

What we should pay attention to instead may be the fresh wind of orthodox Christianity whistling through the leaves-especially throughout the third world, and in some unlikely places in North America, as well. Sometimes animists, Buddhists, and body-pierced Starbucks employees are more fertile ground for the gospel than the confirmed Episcopalian at the helm of the Rotary Club.

Accordingly, evangelicals will engage the culture much like the apostles did in the first century-not primarily to “baptized” pagans on someone’s church roll, but as those who are hearing something new for the first time. There may be fewer bureaucrats in denominational headquarters, but there might be more authentically Christian churches preaching an authentically Christian gospel.

We will be pained to see idolatries springing up where churches once were. In that we will have the same experience our brother Paul did two millennia ago in Athens (Acts 17:16). But like him, sometimes it is easier to gain a hearing among people who know they are ignorant (Acts 17:17), than with those who think they know. Paul listened to the pagan poetry about Zeus, and showed the Athenian philosophers how not even they could live with the kind of god-concepts they said they believed. Around us we hear the father-hunger in the hip-hop lyrics blaring down the urban sidewalk.

We see the fear of death in the plastic surgery clinics and health clubs springing up in the suburban strip-malls. We hear the despondency of sin lamented in the words of a country music song on the sound system of a rural gas station. Against all of that, we proclaim the only message that can answer these unconscious longings and these conscious resentments-Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18). The pagans won’t always listen-but they will know that we are saying something new (Acts 17:32).

The American Protestant majority is is over and to that I say, “good riddance.” Now let’s pray for something new-like a global Christian majority, on earth as it is in heaven.

Some of this commentary was adapted from a post that originally appeared here on July 22, 2004.

Russell D. Moore


Rick Warren’s Appearance at Driscoll Leadership Conference Stirs Controversy

Rick Warren’s appearance last week on Oprah’s Lifeclass elicited an unsurprising reaction from many. When presented with multiple opportunities to share the clear Gospel of Jesus Christ, Warren sidestepped the issue, choosing instead to offer less confrontational, and less controversial, advice for the questions that were raised. Days following this appearance, Warren headlined at Mark Driscoll’s Resurgence conference, along with men like James MacDonald, Greg Laurie and Craig Groeschel. Christian News Network offers a balanced report of some of the reactions to Rick Warren’s appearance at this event.