Kristin Rudolph (@Kristin_Rudolph)
You have probably heard something about the collapse of American Christianity, the mass exodus of young people from the Church, and other dramatic doomsday reports about the state of Christianity in America. “The rise of the ‘Nones’” has been one of the most commonly discussed topics in Christian circles over the past year, and on first glance, it appears to signal a significant decline of faith. But looking closer at where the ‘Nones’ are coming from, there is actually some good news in this trend.
‘Nones,’ those who check the ‘none of the above’ box on religious affiliation, are not formerly devout believers abandoning orthodox faith for self-designed ‘spirituality,’ but rather the same individuals who, even ten years ago, considered themselves nominally Christian and possibly associated with a specific denomination. According to various surveys, about 20% of American adults identify with no religion, up from about 5% in 1972. The shift reflects more a change in the culture than the Church. During a recent interview with Justin Holcomb of Resurgence Ministries, Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research explained part of this shift happened because today, “there’s no social consequence to not identifying as a Christian and there was 50 years ago.”
He emphasized “What’s declining today is cultural Christians.” For example, someone who perhaps once identified as “Lutheran” because his family attended a Lutheran church occasionally would now be comfortable describing himself as having no affiliation, perhaps as “spiritual but not religious.”
Stetzer explained: “There is a correlation between the decline of mainline Protestantism and the rise of the ‘Nones,’ and the squishy middle of nominal Protestantism is collapsing.” Although “The press is reporting this as Christianity is collapsing, it’s not, if we see Christianity as conversion Christianity.”
In fact, the percentage of Evangelical, or “born again” Christians has remained steady over the past several decades, and was 42% of the population as of 2011. Stetzer views the decline of cultural Christianity as a good thing because “Christianity’s being clarified in North America,” which means “the Gospel can be effectively preached.”
The down side to this shift means “As Christianity becomes less of a chaplain to the culture, it’s going to get marginalized. There are places where it’s not going to be welcome. There are beliefs you have that are not going to be affirmed by the culture,” Stetzer said. But, he continued, “Should we be one of the few [people in the history of Christianity] who have not found holding the Gospel to be costly to us?”
It may sound counterintuitive to consider the decline of our faith as a positive trend from a Christian perspective, but as Stetzer pointed out: “When the squishy middle collapses, when nominalism fades away, what’s left is a devout faith that people are committed to … That’s a better place to preach the Gospel from.” We can also see more clearly that people are searching for meaning and purpose in their lives. When they identify as “spiritual but not religious,” that usually indicates openness to faith but a hesitation to commit.
As Christians who believe the Bible and Christian teachings are true and present the best way to a flourishing life, we certainly don’t celebrate the widespread rejection of its teachings. The rejection of traditional Christian ethics and increasing acceptance of relativistic morality does not spell good things for our society’s wellbeing, but it does give us more opportunities to be salt and light.
When Christianity is the norm, most people have some knowledge (or think they do) of its basic teachings, and identify as Christian because that’s simply what everyone does. Although there is a deep difference between “cultural Christians” and “conversion Christians,” it can be easy to assume everyone knows the Gospel already and there is no need to share our faith. As the shift away from cultural Christianity intensifies, we can see those in need of the Gospel and articulate the good news with more clarity.
A cultural rejection of Christianity allows for a starker contrast between the ways of the world and the truth of Christ. The term “Christian” will carry more weight when it is no longer perceived as merely the socially acceptable and advantageous identity. I hope churches will respond to this trend by increasing local evangelistic outreach and catechizing children and new believers. This shift also calls for clearer biblical teaching about all other matters we confront in daily life such as marriage, sexuality, money, poverty, war, among others.
As followers of Christ, we should not be surprised when we don’t resemble the world around us. We may be moving into a time when our faith will be marginalized by the surrounding culture, and to claim the name of Christ will require deep, unwavering conviction.