Tuesday, March 10, 2009

American Religious Identification Survey: What It Means for Evangelicalism?

The latest American Religious Identification Survey from Trinity College of Hartford, Connecticut should be no cause for alarm to American Christians, but, neither can we regard its results as a cause for celebration. The most notable features of the 2008 survey are:
  • The percentage of Americans claiming no religion has jumped from 8.2 in 1990 and 14.2 in 2001 to the current figure of 15 percent.
  • The percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian has fallen from 86 in 1990 to the current figure of 76 percent.
  • The percentage of Catholics in the United States has remained steady at one in four since 1990, but the percentage of non-Catholic Christians has fallen from 60 to 50 percent over the past two decades.
  • Ninety percent of the decline in non-Catholic Christianity over this period has come from mainline Protestant denominations, which have seen their numbers drop from 18.7 percent of Americans in 1990 and 17.2 percent in 2001 to just 12.9 percent of today's population.
  • The percentage of evangelicals in the United States continues on the rise, with one-third of the population identifying themselves as such, including 38.6 percent of those in mainline Protestant traditions.
  • The largest percentage of increase in the evangelical camp has come from those attached to mega-churches, a number that has skyrocketed from less than 200,000 Americans in 1990 and 2.5 million in 2001 to the current figure of 8 million.
Well, the sky most certainly isn't falling, but, in my opinion, several of the trends noted above bode ill for the future of the Body of Christ in our country. It is no surprise that secularity continues to grow. That's a bummer for sure. Religion is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the lives of most Americans. Also, the decline within mainline Protestantism is surely distressing for a segment of American Christianity that has deep historic roots but which has in too many cases drifted from those roots in order to accommodate the culture.

For most theologically-conservative Christians, however, the numbers do not look that bad. Evangelicalism continues to grow, liberal Christianity is continuing to decline, and the Catholic Church has largely retained its numbers. Evangelicals must feel some sense of vindication in the continued growth in their camp and the continued collapse of mainline Protestantism because it represents to many of them an indictment of lukewarm, compromising Christian faith and a strong affirmation of that which sticks to its guns in spite of the culture.

Appearances can be deceiving. For instance, Mark Silk of Trinity College told CNN.com that the rise in evangelicalism is contributing to the rejection of religion altogether by some Americans. He points to the prominence of the "religious right" in politics as having turned many people the other way. That is undoubtedly true, but I think the connection relates more to the very issues many evangelicals see as problematic with mainline Protestantism, namely, that of compromising too much to the culture.

Though the areas where the influential liberal camp in mainline Protestantism has led the mainline denominations to compromise are different from the areas where particularly evangelism-driven evangelicals have led their fellow theologically-conservative Protestants to compromise, I think the results are ultimately going to be similar.

Even if conservative evangelicals are correct that liberal compromises in doctrine, worship, mission, and Christian morality within mainline Protestantism are related to matters of central concern to the Christian faith (in many cases they are), it is a mistake to assume that the compromises evangelicals have made in the name of winning and keeping converts are not also matters of fundamental integrity to the Christian faith. Just because evangelicals have doggedly retained essential points of Christian doctrine, stayed true to the mission of winning souls for Christ, and insisted on biblical standards of morality, that is no assurance that all remains well within the Church.

What happens if evangelicals continue to insist on individual head and heart matters but continue to neglect the love for one another that characterizes real Christian community, refrain from making disciples, and refuse to carry out the mission of establishing Christ's Kingdom in the Church and in the world? How does 12.9 percent of the American population sound? That's where we're headed if the "Let's have a religious entertainment service instead of public worship, and let's build mega-churches so nobody gets to know one another" movement continues. Private Christianity will inevitably dry the well up! Individualistic American Christians need real community and love, not Sunday rock concerts and a purely private relationship with Jesus.

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