Much has been made of the 2014 Pew report, and its finding that the numbers of Americans affiliated with churches and other religious institutions have declined. Indeed, it often seems like the report and Pope Francis have been the two Christian-related news stories of the past four years. It’s become popular to assume that America will soon become Western Europe, with very few people professing faith in God or going to church, and the long history of the faith becoming a distant memory. Not surprisingly, some secularists exult at this news, and even many Christian writers seem to accept it with varying degrees of hope or pessimism.
I don’t accept that this is the inevitable future; for a number of reasons, I am more optimistic about the short-term and long-term future of the church in America than these authors are. These reasons include:
–The efforts by people like Jim Wallis, the Rev. William Barber, and Pope Francis to separate the association between Christianity and conservatism that many people clearly have in their minds; Pope Francis, in particular, has demonstrably increased interest in his denomination, especially in Europe.
–The Together rally in July of 2016, which brought over 100,000 people to the National Mall with relatively little promotion or publicity, and in which members of many different sects and denominations participated (and continue to participate).
–The fact that the vast majority of people in the country (at least 85% to 90% in every poll taken on the subject) tell pollsters they believe in God, across all age groups (including millenials), and a solid majority in all age groups continue to be involved in an organized church as well. Attendance figures also remain constant, with at most a slight decline; depending on how you measure it, something between one in 3 and 1 in 4 Americans attends church regularly, a number little changed since the 1950’s.
There are more “nones,” as we all know, but they are still well short of a majority. (A more recent 2016 report, also by Pew, actually shows a higher number of people attending religious services more often than they did in the past, at 27%, compared with the 23% that attend less often than they used to.)
Granted, the 2016 election stands to blunt all these gains, since it laid bare the hypocrisy of so many white Evangelicals through their willingness to vote for one of the least Christian candidates of all time. That said, there are early reports that Donald Trump’s electoral victory may have inspired more people to go to moderate and liberal churches, so this may end up being something of a wash. Like many people, I am very bothered by Trump’s large following among Christians, but it is too early in Trump’s tenure to know what long-term effect is going to have on religious adherence, and the trend of fewer people affiliating with a church began well before Trump took office. (It’s also worth noting that according to the same Pew report, disagreement with the pastor or the church’s philosophy is a reason, but not one of the main reasons, people change or leave a house of worship; practical considerations are the main reasons.)
None of this is to say that less interest in faith (especially among the Millennial generation) isn’t a problem for those who care about it, or that it should be ignored. That said, the beginning of any solution is hope, and I share my views to do what I can to spread that hope.
It may be counterintuitive, but I should add that liberals, including secular ones, should not hesitate to embrace this idea and spread it. The religious right likes the idea of Christianity as a rapidly shrinking minority; it lets them paint a picture of themselves as persecuted martyrs, and helps create a circle-the-wagons mentality. Good news about the future of their faith in their country undermines these arguments.