The Church has died. Ever since the Church's obituary appeared in the paper this week, my phone has been ringing off the hook. Invitations to be a guest on radio shows from Fresno to Grand Rapids. All to offer comment on the death of the Church in America. The questions popped like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. “Is the Church dead?” “Why are so many people claiming to have no religious affiliation” “What in the world is going on?”As the only mainstream talk radio host who has also pastored a mega-church, I happily fielded the barrage.
The leading source of information for the Church's obituary came from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), a survey which revealed a deep shift in America's faith life since 1990. The two most remarkable nuggets of data include the decline in the last eighteen years of those Americans who call themselves “Christian” from 86% to 76% of the population. The second nugget: nearly 15% of Americans selected the “None” category to describe their religious faith. That figure has almost doubled since 1990. About one in six Americans now state that they have “no religious affiliation.”
My response? In the words of Mark Twain, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” The Church is alive and well in America although its contours have been morphing for decades. Three dimensions of the survey's results make that plain.
First, nearly all of the significant decline in American Christianity occurred between 1990 and the tragic horror of September 11, 2001. Since September 11, the decline has been minimal. In fact, church attendance since the the economic travails of last October has actually surged in many places. Leaders of evangelical churches and Catholic churches report their pews are the fullest in years this Lenten season.
September 11 and the sputtering economy both reveal that in times of stress and in times of need, Americans still turn largely to the Church. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in 1831, he noted how America contrasted with Europe because “the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men in America.” The observation still holds some 175 years later.
Second, nearly all of the decline in Christian “market share” came from the slowly collapsing ranks of mainline Protestant churches, like the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church. For example, the United Methodist Church has lost members every year since 1968. Forty years in a row of creeping death. These highly bureaucratized, often theologically relativistic and liberal, groups await their own funeral. Americans simply have chosen to find spiritual meaning and growth outside the mainline churches.