The interior of St. Roch Church in the Staten Island borough of New York is seen between Sunday morning Masses on Nov. 2, 2014. The NY Archdiocese announced last fall that, as part of a massive consolidation and closing process involving dozens of churches, masses and sacraments will no longer available on a weekly basis at St. Roch Church. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

Bright spots and tough challenges for evangelicals in Pew survey (COMMENTARY)

The unaffiliated make up a growing share across generations. Photo courtesy of Pew Research Center

The unaffiliated make up a growing share across generations. Photo courtesy of Pew Research Center


 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) The survey of America’s religious landscape released by the Pew Research Center last week engendered controversy, with headlines and articles latching onto one aspect of the data (usually the number of self-identifying Christians dropping to 70 percent) and then speeding away to exaggerated conclusions.

What’s the story here? Is it the “demise” of Christianity? Or the steadiness of religious practice? Is it the accelerating decline of denominational affiliation? Or the slow but upward tick of “evangelicals”?

Like so many surveys, there are different ways one can interpret the data.

Evangelical leaders saw the statistics as vindication: The number of evangelicals has grown, a sign that “true Christianity” is winning the day over the “progressive” mainline denominations or a cultural “Christianity-in-name-only.”

Liberal Christians pushed back against evangelical “triumphalism,” pointing out that some of the worrisome statistics that were once true only of mainline Protestantism are now showing up in evangelical denominations as well.

These divergent perspectives on the Pew survey are connected to larger narratives that frame how conservative and liberal Christians in the United States see themselves. In “The Righteous Mind,” Jonathan Haidt describes the different “stories” that arise, depending on whether you lean to the left or right politically. Though he has written primarily about “liberals” and “conservatives” from a political standpoint, I find his analysis easily applies to “liberals” and “conservatives” within Christianity also.

Haidt describes the liberal narrative as “heroic liberation.” Applied to the church, liberals would say the authoritative and hierarchical structures of the church (not to mention the way the church has wielded power in the past) are elements of tradition that keep people in chains. Liberals want to set people free from outdated or misunderstood dogma.

Haidt summarizes the conservative narrative as the “heroism of defense.” Applied to the church, conservatives are protecting their heritage, much like a home that needs to be reclaimed after significant damage has been done by termites. Loyalty to the church is declining because submission to God’s word is being subverted. Conservatives want to hold tightly to the life-giving truths of Christianity and maintain the church’s distinctiveness, no matter how unpopular it may be.

If you’re examining the Pew survey from the “liberation” narrative, then the solution is for the church to “get with the times.” To wit: If only churches would stop taking backward and damaging social positions, maybe they’d start growing again!

Christians decline as a share of the U.S. population; other faits and the unaffiliated are growing. Photo courtesy of Pew Research Center

Christians decline as a share of the U.S. population; other faiths and the unaffiliated are growing. Photo courtesy of Pew Research Center


 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

If you’re looking at it from the “defense” narrative, then the solution is for the church to “hold the line” and clarify true Christianity from its counterfeits: If only the “cultural” Christians would disappear altogether, then we’d know who really believes in traditional Christianity!

Which one of these interpretations is right? I’m one of the convictional Christians: “traditional” not progressive, “conservative" not liberal. Not surprisingly, the “heroism of defense” resonates more with me than “liberation” does. Still, I find elements of both these interpretations shortsighted.

Regarding the progressive interpretation, I don’t think it’s accurate for commentators to interpret Christianity’s decline as a backlash against evangelicalism’s unpopular stances on morality and sexual ethics. According to this thesis, we ought to see an uptick in mainline denominations that hold to liberal views. Instead, mainline Protestantism continues to hemorrhage members, especially millennials.

Furthermore, those who still identify as Christians are becoming “evangelicalized” (a term from researcher Ed Stetzer); that is, what remains of American Christianity is increasingly evangelical in its outlook.

Regarding the conservative interpretation, it’s shortsighted for evangelical leaders to celebrate a declining number of self-identifying Christians, as if the fading of cultural Christianity is, in and of itself, a good thing.

I’m glad to see Christianity become more convictional, not just cultural. But the Pew survey shows “nominal” Christians now choosing “none of the above,” which indicates that the consciousness of the wider culture is moving away from religious devotion. Evangelicals can celebrate the steadiness of our own religious fervor, but the fact that our friends and neighbors are choosing “none” means they will probably be harder to reach moving forward.

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including "Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After." Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including "Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After." Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

In the end, if you are an evangelical, the Pew survey offers reason for celebration and cause for concern. You can celebrate that even as fewer people now self-identify as Christian, more Christians identify with the evangelical movement. But we ought to be concerned about the growing apathy and indifference among Americans toward religion in general.

Evangelicals may be shaping Christianity like never before, but Christianity is no longer shaping American culture like it once did. And there’s our challenge: While liberal and conservative Christians passionately debate the data, more of our neighbors checking “none” say, “Who cares?”

(Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.”)

YS/MG END WAX

Comments

  1. God’s ingathering of believers is His doing, not mans. There are times when many are added to the body of believers such as the book of Acts records over and over again. Then, there are times when the growth seems to slow. Only God knows what is really happening in the hearts and minds of His people. As far as denominational affiliations go, I am glad that they are on the decline. I have not been affiliated with a denomination for many years, yet my love for the Lord has not diminished but only grown since pulling away from them. We need to preach the Word “in season and out of season”. We need to share Christ with those who are truly seeking. Jesus is still “The Way, the Truth, and the Life” and it is still true that: “no one comes to the Father, except by Him (Jesus)”. Receive Him Savior and Lord, and ask God to forgive your sins, and turn away from sin and follow Him as He leads. God Bless

  2. So Christianity is becoming pared down to its most ignorant, obnoxious and irrational subset. This is cause for celebration?

    I guess for fundamentalists it would be. Whereas before, they only held delusions of being the sole voice of Christianity. Calling themselves “True Christians” and everyone else being somehow phony. As time goes on, Mr. Wax’s hope is that they remain the only ones left in the faith. Delusion converts to reality, as being the last ones, left standing when the rest of the world has already moved far ahead.

    It is celebrating the fouling of the nest for Christianity. That fundamentalists have so sullied and soiled the reputation of the faith that people would seek to avoid organized sects rather than associate with Christianity at all.

    The real flaw in such celebratory tones is the fact that the Evangelical sects are more likely to increase demographically, rather than seek new converts. Opposition to family planning a scheme to outpopulate the…

  3. Liberal and “Progressive” Christianity has caused the ranks of the “Nones” to swell. When there is no difference between faith-less secularism and a religious conviction that is no different in the action and voice of “Do as thou wilt,” you are looking at Liberalism.

    I’m not sorry that that is true.

  4. The reason for the death of religion is simple.

    Google.

    It is impossible to believe in gods once you realize there are better answers for reality than “God did it”.

    But we know how the world was formed – how long it took and how we share evolution with all the other animals on earth. The gaps left for God to fill are shrinking.

    And The Bible disintegrates under the pressure of search engines.

    Believers are a shrinking, aging group of people.
    The same people who don’t know how to search for information.

    “God is imaginary”

    google it.
    I dare you.

  5. The reports of the death of the Church are like Mark Twain’s, ‘greatly exaggerated.’ As someone wholly on the outside looking in, you have no standing, or authority to explicate on the gradations among the different sects of the Christian Faith. For all your learning and erudition, I’ll wager you’ve spent little time looking deeply into the assorted and subtle distinctions of doctrine which animate the various branches of Christianity. If you were to canvas the Christians of one hundred sects around the globe, I’m confident you would find that the revisionist progressives of the Western world to be in a decided minority. Your hatred, for that is the word, reflects the mindset of those who will someday contrive a basis for murdering biblically faithful Christians under the color of law for their mere profession of faith.

  6. So you disagree with Trevin Wax’s assessment that mainline and progressive churches are heading to extinction.

    It’s funny how Christians like yourself spend so much effort denying sectarian diversity of belief. Claiming to speak for all “real” Christians. Yet you acknowledge such things solely to try to show me up. Of course referring to Christianity in the singular “Church”, shows how little you personally acknowledge and appreciate the diversity of sects within the faith.

    The rest of your post is just a rant and projection.

  7. “subtle differences” weren’t my words. I was saying how not only is Christianity more diverse than people like Mr. Wax would like and the loss of such diversity would be a bad thing.

    I freely admit that Christian sects not only have small differences, but extremely wide variance in belief on many subjects. Anyone with a concern for the Christian faith beyond their narrow sectarian views, welcomes this diversity. It allows the faith to be taken seriously beyond the obnoxiousness of fundamentalism.

    Fundamentalism of any faith takes what can be socially redeeming and runs it into the ground with its narrow, authoritarian, heavily constrained vision.

  8. Larry May 19, 2015 at 12:24 pm
    “subtle differences” weren’t my words.

    Yes, I know …

    To Diogenes my words are incoherent 😉

  9. Larry I completely agree with Mr. Wax that mainline and progressive churches are headed for extinction in the final analysis. The Universal Church, which is the body of genuine disciples of Christ of whatever Christian sect, will prevail in the end. God knows His Own and will separate the sheep from the goats according to His perfect Justice. Those who are Christ’s enemies today may well be His disciples tomorrow, and many who loudly profess Him will in the end be rejected because they did not have the true Heart of Christ. I question my own commitment and faithfulness everyday knowing full well I come up short of the mark, often in the commerce of mere personal interaction. But I also go before God daily acknowledging my transgressions in the hopes of finally maturing into a complete disciple. No claims of perfection here.
    I recognize the beauty of diversity in the Church, but I know heresy when I see it as well. Christ prophesied what you are pleased to call a rant

  10. Certainly, not all doctrinal distinctions are ‘subtle,’ sometimes they’re glaring. But often if you study carefully the heart of what is being debated, the greatest real difference is mere semantics. I will grant theologians have wasted a great deal of energy down through the centuries over questions of little import in the end. Wisdom lies in knowing how to separate wheat from chaff; a never ending task. Even the most learned theologian is subject to error, dogmatism, and a host of other human frailties, precisely because we are all frail humans. Nobody’s perfect. I merely reject the uninformed twisting of the clear and obvious intent of the text of scripture to further a predetermined agenda.

  11. I think it clear that my past remark regarding incoherence was offensive to you. On that basis, please allow me to sincerely beg your pardon. I do not doubt your general goodwill to things spiritual in this semi-public forum.

  12. “I recognize the beauty of diversity in the Church, but I know heresy when I see it as well. Christ prophesied what you are pleased to call a rant”

    Heresy being pretty much defined by you and Mr. Wax as any interpretation of belief and scripture which differs from one you are willing to accept. You can’t be decrying other sects so vociferously (gleefully expecting their demise) and expect to be taken seriously when allegedly admiring diversity within the faith. Your admiration going only so far as being in agreement with your sectarian version of the faith an little else. Fundamentalists care little of belief beyond their own. Even within the same religion. You and Mr. Wax are no different.

    Whereas you and Mr. Wax celebrate such a narrowing and paring down of Christian sects, many people, especially those not of a self-serving fundamentalist bent, would find it disturbing and damaging to the faith in general.

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