The church is dying, or so we are told. “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans become even less affiliated with religion,” so stated the Washington Post. Other media outlets have reported something similar with NPR saying, “Christians in the U.S. on decline as number of ‘nones’ grows, survey finds,” and The New York Times stating, “Big drop in share of Americans calling themselves Christians.”
But are these reports true? Not according to Glenn T. Stanton, author of ‘The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity is Actually Thriving in America and the World.’ Stanton is the Director of Global Family Formation at Focus on the Family. His book, based on sociological studies, completely refutes the popular secular view voiced by many, even some Christian leaders, that the church is dying. As he says that view is a myth that he likens to the story of Chicken Little, who after being hit on the head with an acorn, declared the sky was falling. Chicken Little then spread the word to his rhyming named woodland friends like Foxy Loxy and Turkey Werkey, who in turn accepted the idea of the coming Armageddon.
Stanton starts off referencing two widely respected leaders in this field of study – Greg Smith and Rodney Stark. Greg Smith has worked as the Associate Director of Research for the Pew Research Center, which is a highly respected institution. When asked by Dr. Ed Stetzin of Wheaton College, “Is evangelicalism dying?,” he simply said, “Absolutely not,” and went on to explain, “There’s nothing in this data to suggest that Christianity is dying, that evangelicalism is dying, that Catholicism is dying. That is not the case what so ever.” Rodney Stark, co-director of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion also stated, “Well, I think this notion that they’re (evangelicalism) is shrinking is stupid. And it’s fiddling with the data in quite malicious ways. I see no such evidence.”
The Indiana University Harvard Research, in agreement with Pews, Greg Smith says that “evangelicals are not on the decline,” but actually, “grew from 1972 where there was 18 percent of the population to a steady level of about 28 percent from 1989 to 2016.”
SO WHAT IS HAPPENING
The answer is that traditional mainline denominational churches, in the main, are declining and in many cases doing so rapidly. “In contrast, the Indiana/Harvard Research showed that mainline Protestants have declined precipitously from 35 percent of the American population in 1972 to 12 percent of the population in 2016. This is Chicken Little territory. The decline of the mainline churches began in the 1960s and early 1970s as they started to question and even change their positions on historic Christian basics like the existence of miracles, the reality of sin, and the actual atoning death of Christ and His resurrection, as well jettisoning Biblical convictions about sex, gender issues, and abortion. People ran for the doors of theses churches in mass with every new compromise, and this exodus continues today. Compromising Biblical truths was and is devastating church-growth strategy. It could hardly be worse if these pastors asked their parishioners to leave and never come back.
“So, is Christianity shrinking? Not if you are talking about Biblically faithful congregations that call their people to genuine Christian discipleship.” Only the mainline churches are shrinking.
CHURCH ATTENDANCE IN THE USA
Stanton gives some interesting quotes on church attendance in America over the centuries. In 1776, at the time of the War of Independence, only 17 percent of Americans attended a local church. In 1850, the number mushroomed to 34 percent attending. In 1906, 51 percent attended church. Today, about 35 percent are weekly attendees.
As far as today is concerned, the “rise of nondenominational Christianity is probably one of the strongest (religious growth) trends in the last two decades.” In the United States, now nondenominational churches are generally more a conservative, evangelical flavor. In many cases, they form loose networks of independent churches.
“Pew reports that evangelicals now constitute a clear majority of U.S. Protestants. Also, ‘the greatest movement in decline within Christianity over the last fifty years and right up to today is liberal Christianity’.”
WHY CONSERVATIVE CHURCHES GROWING
Dean M. Kelly in 1972 wrote a book ‘Why Conservative Churches are Growing?’ Kelly was one of the leaders in the liberal National Council of Churches. His book did not win many friends amongst his liberal colleagues. He states, “For the first time in the nation’s history, most of the major church groups stopped growing and began to shrink for the first time since colonial days. Now, they have begun to diminish, reversing a trend of two centuries.” He also quotes a leading expert on church growth from that day who stated through the 1960s and into the 70s, “the fundamentalists and Pentecostalists increased their numbers at about the same rate as the mainline churches decrease.”
EXAMPLE OF A DYING CHURCH
In his book, Stanton gives a striking example of a church in Seattle that moved away from basic Christian orthodoxy and went into decline. It is almost like a picture of what has happened in the larger cases of denominations that did the same thing.
“EastLake Church began as your average hipster evangelical church appealing to and connecting with young people. The founding pastor Ryan Meeks watched his church explode in the early years, seeing more that one hundred new people come week after week. The church continued to grow in terms of people in the seats, volunteers, services, staff, finances and additional campuses throughout Seattle.
“But a few years ago, Meeks made a major theological shift. With great fanfare, he announced one weekend that EastLake would become fully supportive of homosexuality. No, they would not just be kind and gracious to people who identify as same-sex attracted who come through their doors. They were already doing that. All churches should do that. He decided that his church would now affirm, even embrace, homosexuality itself. In the course of one weekend, they became a pro-LGBT church, with Meeks making stunning statements like, ‘I don’t care if the Bible says, “Gay people suck. I have lots of things I disagree with about the Bible.” He disparaged the Scriptures in other ways, telling his congregation, “If we need to consult an ancient book to know what to do when a human is standing in front of us, I think we are screwed already.” That from a pastor trying to make his church more relevant and welcoming to the people in his city. They changed nothing else but this position and had their pastor’s radical statements on the record.
“So, what happened at EastLake Church after this shift? The church imploded. They lost members by the hundreds. Their budget tanked by millions of dollars. They had to lay off much of their staff and close campuses. All because their pastor said, “I don’t care what the Bible says!” and began making theological decisions that proved it. And it should be noted that these were not a bunch of reactionary traditionalists. It’s why they were drawn to EastLake.
“Ideas and beliefs have consequences. EastLake Church is not a one-off. Not even close. It is only one of thousands of such churches making major theological compromises over the last few decades. Is Christianity shrinking? Some parts of it, you bet. Churches that throw biblical truth overboard find their members jumping overboard after it. The research reveals this, likely as do your observations as you look around your own city.”
AN INTERESTING SURVEY
Stanton also quotes, “A very interesting and starkly counterintuitive example of how even very unlikely people prefer more conservative churches comes from research conducted jointly at Columbia University and UCLA. Examining the church choices of same-sex attracted men and women, these two scholars found that these individuals were 2.5 times more likely to attend churches that took a more conservative view on homosexuality – churches that these scholars derisively called ‘non-affirming’ – over those congregations that celebrated homosexuality. Pew’s findings also show that same-sex identified individuals are more likely to attend churches that hold to a Biblical view of sexuality. Very interesting.”
A WORD OF EXPLANATION
I have quoted considerably from the book ‘The Myth of a Dying Church’ because it is so significant and informative. It is a book that I encourage leaders to read. It demonstrates how Christianity is thriving in America and the world.
A FINAL WORD
Lee Grady, the one-time editor of Charisma Magazine, recently wrote an article entitled ‘Don’t Believe the Lie that Christianity is Declining.’ He too makes reference to the book that I have featured here ‘The Myth of a Dying Church,’ but he also emphasizes the growth of Christianity around the world, which we will look at in a later Langstaff Letter.
Believe and don’t be discouraged by what the secular media tells you. God is alive, and so is His church. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hades will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)”
So, for the church, “I believe the best is yet to be.”
Stanton, Glenn T. The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and the World. Worthy Books, Hachette Book Group, 2019.
Kelley, Dean M. Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: a Study in Sociology of Religion; with a New Preface for the ROSE Edition. Mercer University Press, 1995.