The Decline Of Christianity In America

Oct 15th, 2022 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

The anecdotal evidence for Christianity’s decline in America is not difficult to discern.  Broadly speaking, we see it in the decline in church attendance.  We see it in the millennial generation’s lack of commitment to institutions such as the church.  We see it in the decline and closing of many Christian Bible colleges and liberal arts colleges.  And we see it in the divisiveness in many churches produced by the COVID pandemic and the poisonous nature of politics seeping into church life.  However, a new study just released by the Pew Research Center confirms some of our suppositions and observations.  In this Perspective, I want to summarize the salient results of this most important report.


The data that Pew has, “from 50 years of research by the General Social Survey and Pew’s own survey of 15,000 adults in 2019, indicates the current trend is inexorable. People are giving up on Christianity. They will continue to do so. And if you’re trying to predict the future religious landscape in America, according to Pew, the question is not whether Christianity will decline. It’s how fast and how far.  In a new study . . . Pew projects that in 2070, Christians will likely make up less than half the US population.  Currently, 64 percent of people say they are Christian, but nearly a third of those raised Christian eventually switch to ‘none’ or ‘nothing in particular,’ while only about 20 percent of those raised without religion become Christian. If that ratio of switching continues at a steady pace, then in roughly half a century, only about 46 percent of Americans will identify as Christian.  If the rate of switching continues to accelerate, as it has since the 1990s, the percent calling themselves Christians will drop to 35.”

What else does the Pew study reveal? Daniel Silliman of Christianity Today, provides a helpful summary of the report:

  • Few of the people leaving Christianity appear to be joining other religions. In America today, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and all non-Christian faiths account for about 6 percent of the population. “There isn’t enough information for researchers to isolate differences between these groups. They project that, overall, non-Christian faiths will double in America by 2070, mostly by having children and raising them in the religion.  The dramatic change, according to Pew, will come with the “nones.” People who say they don’t have a religious identity—though many still embrace some Christian beliefs and engage in various spiritual practices—are projected to rise from about 30 percent today to as much as 52 percent in 50 years.”
  • The Pew poll tracks the rapid decline of self-identified Christians: “The projections show Christians of all ages shrinking from 64% to between a little more than half (54%) and just above one-third (35%) of all Americans by 2070. Over that same period, ‘nones’ [those affiliated with no religion] would rise from the current 30% to somewhere between 34% and 52% of the U.S. population.”  Christianity is losing adherents:  “A steadily shrinking share of young adults who were raised Christian (in childhood) have retained their religious identity in adulthood over the past 30 years,” Pew found. “At the same time, having no religious affiliation has become ‘stickier’: A declining percentage of people raised without a religion have converted or taken on a religion later in life.”  In other words: “With each generation, progressively fewer adults retain the Christian identity they were raised with, which in turn means fewer parents are raising their children in Christian households.”  The decline is especially acute for White evangelical Christians. “The overall declines in the proportion of Americans who identify as Christian over the last few decades have been driven primarily by declines among White, non-Hispanic Christians,” Robert P. Jones, president of the Public Religion Research Institute, tells me. “A first wave of White non-evangelical/mainline Protestant decline began in the 1970s, followed by White Catholic decline and, more recently — just since the mid-2000s — White evangelical Protestant decline.” He adds, “Over the last 15 years, White evangelical Protestant decline has actually been markedly steeper than the White non-evangelical Protestant decline.”
  • “Modeling the Future of Religion in America” is a new enterprise for Pew, which has previously focused on landscaping religion in America, not trying to predict where things will go. “The picture the study paints, though, is not that different from what Pew and other religion researchers have been saying in recent years.  Public Religion Research Institute founder Robert P. Jones wrote an obituary for ‘white Christian America’ in 2019, based on changing racial demographics and trends in religious disaffiliation.  Gallup started regularly giving people the option of ‘none’ on a religious preference question in 2008. The number of people giving that answer immediately started increasing. In 2012, Pew reported that nones were ‘on the rise,’ prompting scores of analyses on the phenomenon.  Ryan Burge, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University, wrote in his 2021 book The Nones that there was a time when the religiously unaffiliated appeared to be ‘no more than a rounding error.’  But then they ‘zoomed past 10 percent of the population by 1996, crossed the 15 percent threshold a decade later, and managed to reach 20 percent by 2014.’ When he downloaded the raw data from the General Social Survey in 2018, the unaffiliated roughly equaled Catholics and evangelicals in size.”
  • Pew’s new report does, however, clearly identify the mechanism driving the change. By isolating different demographic factors, it shows that declining Christian birthrates and non-Christian immigrants are not significant causes.  “The main reason is switching—Christians deciding they are not Christians anymore. This mostly happens to people between the ages of 15 and 29, according to the report, with an additional 7 percent of Christians disaffiliating from the faith after the age of 30.”  “Switching out has been happening steadily, which didn’t used to happen,” Kramer told CT. “It used to be that if you met someone on the street, and their father and mother were Christian, then they were Christian too. That’s not always true anymore. For about a third of people, that’s not true anymore.”
  • Pew does not have a theory about why more people are switching. The research center focuses on the data, leaving explanations to others.  “Some, building on the work of the late sociologist Rodney Stark, have argued it’s caused by denominations growing more liberal. According to this argument, if a church emphasizes all the same issues and concerns as left-leaning political activists, then there’s no reason to do the extra work of belonging to a church. They point to shrinking mainline churches. The United Church of Christ, the first mainline denomination to embrace same-sex marriage, lost more than 40 percent of its members in the 17 years after that decision, for example.  Others have connected the trend to conservative politics, arguing evangelical association with Republicans is driving young people away from church. The rise of the evangelical moment and the uptick in the number of nones in some election years is cited as evidence.  Many sociologists, going back to Max Weber, have argued that secularization is inevitable as society advances. Globalization, industrialization, and technology make it harder and harder for people to believe. The biggest change that’s visible today, though, isn’t really a rapid change in beliefs but affiliations. Atheists remain in the single digits in the US. But while many nones affirm the existence of God and even pray, they don’t want to be connected to a religious group or identity.”

Finally, consider these statistical observations by Tim Dalrymple of Christianity Today:  “One survey after another show increasing numbers of young people leaving the church.  Gallup reported this year that belief in God had declined 10% in about 10 years.  According to Barna, the percentage of Americans who qualify as ‘practicing Christians’ has dropped from 50% in 2009 to 25% in 2020—with church attendance dropping most precipitously among millennials.  Pew reported in 2019 that 84% of Americans born before 1945 identity as Christian, compared with 76% of boomers, 67% of Gen X, and 49% of millennials.  Since younger Americans are less likely to have been raised in Christian communities and practices than their forbearers, they are less likely to affiliate with the church as adults.”

Writing this Perspective has drawn me to Judges 2:7-15, where we see the spiritual condition of Israel after the death of Joshua.  The result was catastrophic for Israel.  For the millennial and GenZ generations in America, biblical Christianity does not have the same depth and resonance as their parents.  We are seeing a generation that “does not know the LORD or His mighty works.”  This is once again a reminder that the primary issue in civilizational decline in America is not political, social or economic; it is spiritual.  May we reorient our priorities to this profound truth!

And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110 years. And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. 10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.  11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. 13 They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. 14 So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. 15 Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them for harm, as the Lord had warned, and as the Lord had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress.  [ESV]

See Daniel Silliman, “Decline of Christianity Shows No Signs of Stopping” in (13 September 2022); Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post (15 September 2022); and Timothy Dalrymple in Christianity Today (September 2022).

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