6 Reflections on Protestant Decline in America

Protestants have lost their majority status in the United States, and the number of Americans with no religious affiliation is rising. Those are the two big conclusions of a recently released study of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in America.

For the first time in American history, the United States does not have a Protestant majority. The adult Protestant population reached a new low of 48 percent. That’s down from the 1960s when two in three Americans identified themselves as Protestants. The report records declines in both mainline and evangelical numbers, and that many of these people have joined the ranks of “the Nones,” those who say they have no religion (now one in five Americans).

Reading deeper into the study, I wondered about two things. The study counted among the “Nones” those who say they believe in God, pray, and are spiritual but are not religious. I wonder if the study recognized that many evangelical Christians define themselves in this way—we often say (rather simplistically) “our church is not about religion, but about a relationship with God in Christ.” I also questioned when the study said the number of Protestants has decreased in part due to the growth of non-denominational churches. I know many non-denominational groups that consider themselves Protestant. And I know many non-denominational groups that do not emphasize being Protestant but still act and believe in Protestant ways. But I also know many non-denominational Christians who really aren’t Protestant at all, which makes counting this demographic difficult.

Even so, I do not doubt the broad trend that the Pew study has identified. In fact, the reality may be worse than what the Pew study suggests. In his recent book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes about the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity in America. He argues that Christian orthodoxy is losing ground to the many ascendant heresies of our day—new Gnosticism, prosperity gospel, new sects, spiritual narcissism, nationalism, and so on.

Why this trend? The Pew report only touches on a few of the reasons—but all kinds of causes have been suggested: a move away from the gospel, failure of Christians to live out their faith, identifying Christianity too closely with politics, suffocating materialism, the pluralism of our global age, a spiritual but post-Christian worldview pumped to the young through countless new media portals.

This trend does not quite fit the old secularization thesis—that societies become less religious the more modern they become. Spirituality and religious pluralism in America are on the rise. Nor does this trend say anything about the overall decline of Christianity. Because while Christianity is declining in the West, it is growing in the Global South and East.

Cause for Reflection

Nevertheless, American Christian leaders need to reflect long and hard about the trend that Pew is reporting. Here are a few quick observations.

(1) This is another reminder denominationalism is in decline.

Identification with a Protestant label such as Presbyterian or Baptist is no longer valued by many, and in some cases it is seen as a hindrance to Christian witness. That said, I am part of a denomination and think healthy denominations are still quite useful. But I realize that the trend is going in the other direction.

(2) Protestants (even evangelicals) have done a poor job of imprinting our identity on our children.

We have either focused on spiritual vibrancy without catechizing, or catechized without emphasizing spiritual vibrancy. Either way, we have lost ground with our youth. Church leaders need to think doubly hard about how we are going to reach and train up the next generation of Christians. We have to rethink the way we do children’s and youth ministry.

(3) There are three wrong responses to this Protestant decline.

One is to batten down the hatches and adopt a fortress mentality when it comes to our culture. Another is to emphasize a lowest common denominator Christianity that insists on as little as possible of Christian truth in order to connect with secular audiences. Still another is to redefine central tenets of the Christian faith and so accommodate the faith to the late modern world.

(4) We need to affirm a robust orthodox Christianity.

In contrast to these approaches, I believe we need to affirm a robust orthodox Christianity, even a confessional Christianity, that keeps Christ and the gospel central to everything we do and say. It should be confessional, but center focused; it should be gracious and not doctrinally belligerent on peripheral concerns.

(5) We need to re-examine how we define Christian discipleship in a culture coming apart.

The early Christians might help us here. They were known for their distinct way of life. They could tell others that following Jesus is a better way to live. Perhaps that is why they were called people of “the way.” The whole era of the early church is more and more relevant to our new cultural setting. They had the challenge of living for Christ in a pluralistic, pagan, pre-Christian environment. We have the challenge of living for Christ in a pluralistic, neo-pagan, post Christian environment. We can learn a lot from the early church.

(6) Some of us are used to thinking of America in Jerusalem or New Jerusalem-like categories.

Without being postmillennial about it, we grew up with the “city on the hill” image. Yet as our culture changes, some aspects of our society are starting to look a lot more like Babylon than Jerusalem. We are looking more like a mission field than a mission-sending center. In terms of evangelism, we can no longer assume that everyone around us is a theist who can draw on long-forgotten Sunday school lessons. More and more people have no church background at all. All of this means that we really do need to live and think like missionaries as our neighborhoods are populated with Muslims, Mormons, spiritualists, and Nones.

The Pew study is another cultural indicator. Take note of it. Talk about it with other Christian leaders. And get ready for the wonderful yet incredible challenge ahead of us—to be truly Christian in this new environment.

  • FOREBarca

    The grass withers, and the flowers fade, but the word of the Lord endures forever. In other words, it matters a whit that the gospel is in decline in the United States. Moreover, I believe that young people leave because the mainline Protestant denominations have been more focussed on building edifices and programs instead of people and relationships. The churches have put the onus on the young people urging them saying, “You want relationship, create it!” Yet, sometimes the church ought to pursue the young people. It has not, and so the young people have moved on to finding fellowship elsewhere-in social justice issues in the secular domain, for example. Additionally, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its call to self-denial can be a harsh rebuke in a culture where pleasure seeking is a raison d’etre for many.

  • http://thekingsfellowship.com Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

    If you click to enlarge the chart, what do you get? A close up of Tim Keller preaching!

    Does this mean he is the answer to Protestant decline?

    • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

      That’s pretty funny, Steve. Is that what others see? I just tried it and got the enlarged chart.

      • AStev

        Same here – all I see is the chart.

        • http://www.thekingsfellowship.com Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

          I clicked today and it’s a close up of the chart.

          But guys, I’m telling you, last night it was Keller! I’m serious.

          • Darren Blair

            I believe it; I work for a newspaper, and you’d be surprised how often things make it into print.

            I remember one night I went to start my delivery route and noted that the same image had been used for two different articles… and on the front page, no less.

            • http://thekingsfellowship.com Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

              I’m about 95% sure I didn’t dream it!

  • John

    What is known as Christian orthodoxy reflects the 1st-4th century pre-modern worldview of the men who created it. In
    the modern age among advanced people (i.e. outside the actual and cultural 3rd world), is it so surprising that people are moving away from an institution that requires allegience to pre-modern worldviews? I think the church would do better to focus on encouraging people to love their neighbor as themselves, instead of the old-time beliefs.

    • AStev

      Actually, it reflects the timeless truth of the God who authored it. We are neither called, nor competent, to superimpose our preferences over God’s.

    • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

      Hi John,

      The idea you just expressed is classical liberalism. Schleiermacher expressed the same in “Speeches on Religion to It’s Cultured Despisers”, often considered the father of modern liberalism. (It’s also one of the most boring books I’ve ever tried to read!). I agree with Machen that liberalism is another religion than Christianity. You need to heed 2 Cor. 13:5 and examine yourself to see whether you are really in the faith. If you are, then Christ lives in you and you would know that the Bible is His inerrant Word. If you don’t know that, maybe you ought to consider that rather than being more sophisticated than God’s Word, that you’re actually just an unbeliever.

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  • Pavel

    There’s something that just struck me. It’s called “6 Reflections…”, though there are only 5 reflections. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 – 4 is missing.

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  • Jerry

    What I wonder is how accurate old studies were. I’m sure many people considered themselves Protestant only because it was culturally expedient. That’s not the case anymore. We might actually have more true Protestants now but the overall numbers are lower because there is less need to be culturally Protestant. Speculating.

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  • Darren Blair

    My take on things as a Mormon?

    “Silent Majority vs. Vocal Minority.”

    When people go to watch TV, what images of Christianity show up the most? The Phelps family? The street preachers outside Temple Square? Televangelists? Et cetra.

    When people are out in public, who is most likely to self-identify as Protestant? Are they the people who you want speaking for Protestantism?

    There are millions of good, hard-working, honest Protestants out there. But between the Phelps types, the “more faith than common sense” crowd, and the hypocrites who get in everyone’s faces, their personal examples are getting lost.

    I actually live in the Bible Belt, and so I see it every day: people who talk a good game of being Christian, but whose personal lives just don’t jive. In fact, the most corrupt businessman I ever worked with had his degree from Southern Methodist proudly hanging over his desk.

    You guys really need to stress the “who is thy neighbor” and “they brother’s keeper” bits more often.

    • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

      I’m a Calvinist and I agree with the quote. If someone’s life is not showing some kind of sanctification, then it’s time for them to “examine themselves to see if [they] are in the faith”. As another GC blog has it: there’s no Reformation without sanctification.

      Apparently you don’t fully understand Calvinism.

      • Darren Blair

        Thank you.

        Where I live, fifty cents can get you a crucifix out of a vending machine, a dollar can get you a Bible or a whole host of religious kitsch, and one of the local churches has actually been encouraging its members to get vanity plates so that people can see what church they go to.

        In other words, one can actually walk around with all the trappings of being a “Good Christian” – often cheaply – but not actually display it in the way they lead their life.

        As a Mormon, this grates at me; the church leadership has issued the challenge that *our lives* should be the only thing anyone needs to recognize that we’re Mormon and that symbols should largely be unnecessary.

        • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

          Mormonism is a whole new religion. If Mormons would simply admit that they are not Christians and stop claiming that they have another revelation of the “Jesus Christ” of the Bible, they would have a lot more integrity. Mormon theology is opposed to Biblical Christianity.

  • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

    Suggestions for a #4?:

    4. Portions of conservative evangelicalism, especially fundamentalists and those like Pyromaniacs and Phil Johnson, would rather criticize (with inflammatory rhetoric) people like Mark Driscoll than celebrate the growth of churches like his.

    or —

    4. The legacy of white, Southern evangelicalism’s failure to deal with racism, with many white church members allowed to be unrepentant racists. Their children often grow up to see their parents as hypocrites and dismiss not only them but the faith that wouldn’t challenge them.

    or —

    4. The long-term fruit of the collapse of the practice of church discipline in the 20th century, with, for example, the Southern Baptists claiming over 16 million “members” but only about half of those faithfully attending their churches. That lack necessarily down-grades the meaning of membership, with many eventually concluding that since membership (apparently) means nothing, there is no reason to affiliate with a church.

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  • JohnM

    This is a good post. I think #2 is fairly accurate,but I do wonder if our very concentrated focus on youth hasn’t, ironically, contributed to the trend. For one thing, from what I’ve seen “youth ministry” and “serious and meaningful” don’t always seem to fit together in the same sentence.

    I think the tendency noted in #3 to “emphasize a lowest common denominator Christianity that insists on as little as possible of Christian truth in order to connect with secular audiences.” not only is wrong response, but is itself a contributing factor to the decline in Protestantism.

    By the way, how long are we going to call ourselves generically “Protestant” anyway? Not much meaning in that. The label is really about four hundred years outdated, you’d think. And I agree with Jerry’s comments above. Perhaps it’s partly that fewer people are deceiving themselves than before. If so, that much we should welcome.

  • http://www.godcamedown.com Christ Centered Teaching

    “I believe we need to affirm a robust orthodox Christianity, even a confessional Christianity, that keeps Christ and the gospel central to everything we do and say.”

    You stole my fire!

    Keller And Driscoll have brought the light of the world to two the darkest places in the United States and with success.

    Driscoll was quoted as saying we preach Jesus Jesus Jesus people get excited about Jesus like nothing else.
    Mars Hill Church is no the third fastest growing church in America.

    Keller’s new book,”Center Church”,which I just bought, has chapters titled ,”the gospel isn’t everything”, and another titled ,”the gospel speaks to everything”. Keller knows the Grand simplicity we have in Christ. He also knows we are prone to be overly simplistic in doctrinal application.
    The gospel Is far more nuanced then we typically believe.

    The Light of the world,Jesus,is burning bright at Redeemer in Manhattan And at Mars Hill Seattle.2 ends of the United States night pray that that flame burns to the center of our nation!
    Thanks for posting this and for adding to the Flame.

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  • http://judeochristianstuffofsomesort.blogspot.com/ jaykay

    The problem is Protestant Christianity is a bait-and-switch. Outsiders (the unchurched, atheists) are told that Christianity is about morality. That is what prompts many of them to convert. Then they get inside and begin to realize nobody seems to care about morality in the churches, that its all about mythology like “original sin” which isn’t even found in Genesis 3 but only in Romans 5 (maybe, because even that interpretation of Rom 5:12 is a stretch). They wander around throughout the Christian denominations trying to find one that give’s a rat’s butt about morality, and then ultimately some Calvinist pastor lets them in on Christianity’s dirty little secret and tells them frankly and with no spin, “Christianity is not about morality.” So they leave. They continue to believe in God and in living a moral life, but they ignore the churches as worthless disease ridden institutions all about money and mythology but not morality. And the Protestant response to this is, of course, to attack morality publicly on the Internet. Then, Protestant Christianity loses even its bait-and-switch capacity for converting people. When they know the dirty little secret that “Christianity is not about morality” BEFORE having wasted years in the churches, they don’t convert and go through the whole ordeal like people used to in the past generations.

    • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

      If out-siders are told the faith is about “morality”, they aren’t hearing the gospel. And original sin is what is being described in Genesis 3.

      You appear to neither know church history or the faith. Christianity is and always has been about salvation. The law shows people their sin — that they are depraved and need salvation — and the gospel tells them that Christ has paid the price for their sin on the cross and risen victoriously so that we can live transformed lives (then, finally, be “moral”). Moralism has never been the gospel and the church has grown most, such as during the Great Awakening, when the gospel was preached, not when moralism was spread.

      The truth is the opposite of what you describe: moralistic churches give people little reason to be a part because they believe they can be moral themselves. They don’t understand that they can’t save themselves or be a part of the Body of Christ themselves.

      Examine yourself to see if you are in the faith. If you are, Jesus Christ is in you. If you are not, then that’s the problem. (2 Cor. 13:5).

      • jay kay

        Why does Genesis 3 say nothing about condemnation to hell? Why does it say nothing about a loss of free will? Why does it say nothing about a loss of moral capacity? On this last point, why does it say the opposite, “Behold man has become like one of Us knowing good and evil”? Face it, “original sin” is just medieval mythology invented by Manicheus and Augustine. When Paul said that phrase “Examine yourself to see if you are in the faith” he said it because they were living immorally, not because they had jetisoned the medieval doctrine of “original sin” which didn’t even exist yet. For note the whole context:

        2 Cor 13:5-7 “[5] Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates? [6] But I trust that ye shall know that we are not reprobates. [7] Now I pray to God that ye do no evil; not that we should appear approved, but that ye should do that which is honest, though we be as reprobates.”

        The context is that they examine themselves whether they be in the faith or not, so as to not do evil. The verse in question refutes the very view you are defending.

        • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

          Your reasoning is silly. Genesis 3 doesn’t have to say everything. Genesis 3 describes what sin is: lack of faith, lack of love for God, willfulness. Later passages lay down both the ideas behind eternal punishment, depravity, etc., then later scripture clearly states those doctrines. And the idea of “free will” never occurs at all.

          You’re wrong about 2 Corinthians 13:5. It’s because they were living differently than a Christian should as your espousal of unbelief and false doctrines is. By the way, read a modern translation.

      • JohnM

        “Wasn’t the Great Awakening intimately tied to Prohibition (i.e. the prohibition of alchohol)? ” To which Great Awakening are you referring, and to which do you believe John Carpenter was referring? It makes a difference, so you should probably want to know the answer.

        • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

          The Great Awakening wasn’t tied to prohibition.

  • Brian Gehrlein

    Even if protestantism virtually disappears and America burns to the ground, may God’s kingdom reign. May his people believe and be changed. Whether we meet in modern buildings or bombed out caves. May God’s glory and the pursuit of Him characterize us rather than the ability to hold a majority in a land that was never our own. We are wanderers. Sojourners. Passing through. May His people be revived and live out what they believe.

    Are we afraid to lose a majority in America because of the power and status we would lose, or because it would somehow hurt the Kingdom? Are we concerned that it is in decline because that means we might actually experience real persecution in this country?

    I am skeptical of studies like this because they have nothing to do with our mission other than the fact that we ought to be prayerful and careful about living out our faith and pursuing the lost. But we knew that already. This will be true always no matter how the stats look. I think therefore that it is irrelevant to fixate on such things, or to think that it somehow should motivate us to change the game to get the majority back.

    God knows the heart of his people. A human chart can never accurately paint a picture of what God’s people look like in this country or anywhere.

  • http://EZseven10.wordpress.com CJ

    I think one reason for the decline that wasn’t noted by the study is the rising number of horrible church experiences people are having. I know so many people who currently define themselves as atheists or with no religious affiliation because they were hurt in some way by church leadership, community, or politics.

  • http://www.corinthtoday.org paul cummings

    for a possible #4 I’m going with the hijacking of ‘evangelical Christianity’ by a certain political party…

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  • Allan Osborne

    It is time for the great USA to gather back into the fold all these people who have given up on faith. Growing up in Britain I was in awe of the American way of life and the boldness of American enterprise. America was always seen as the protector of right throughout the world. This is now not the case and part of America slipping from grace in the eyes of the world coincides with this slipping of religious values and can only get worse as the two seem linked in my opinion. It’s time for America to be bold and recruit the non believers into the church and start the rise of a strong and fair America that Americans can be proud of once again and the world can only look on at the wonders of your great land.