To borrow and adapt a phrase from the late Mark Twain, reports of the Church’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Christianity Today recently ran an article by Pastor Ed Stetzer, the president of LifeWay Research, that drives home this point. In “The State of the Church In America: Hint: It’s Not Dying,” Stetzer corrects this false narrative that the Evangelical Church is on an irreversible downward trajectory.
In doing so, he makes an important distinction – and I’ll quote Stetzer here: “Christianity is represented by people who live for Christ, not check ‘Christian’ on a survey form.”
As he fleshes out this idea, Stetzer separates the 75 percent of Americans who identify with one of three categories – those who say they are Christian because of their family history or heritage; those who do nothing more than attend church every now and then; and, finally, those who acknowledge a personal relationship with Jesus and have experienced a real life-change.
That last group – the “Convictional Christians,” as Stetzer names them – make up about a third of that 75 percent of self-identified Christians. That number has remained steady throughout the years – it’s the other categories that are seeing a downward trend.
Here is Stetzer in his own words on what he feels this means:
The Church is not dying. It is just being more clearly defined.
Convictional Christians are not leaving the faith; the “squishy middle,” as I like to call it, is simply being flattened.
As Christians find themselves more and more on the margins in American society, people are beginning to count the cost. While it used to serve Americans well to carry the label “Christian” in most circumstances (think about running for public office, for instance), it can actually be polarizing or considered intolerant now. So for those who really don’t have any skin in the game, shedding the label makes sense.
Christianity may be losing its top-down political and cultural influence, but Jesus spoke of His followers making an impact in a very different manner. He taught that God’s kingdom was subversive and underground. He used examples like yeast, which changes things from the inside, and mustard seeds, which are small and must be planted in order to grow up and out.
Stetzer’s words might be chilling for some Christians, and I certainly understand why. It’s heartbreaking to so often see the country we love make repeated choices against the very biblical truths and values that helped shape the nation at its founding.
However, I would ask you to consider this: God is also giving “Convictional Christians” an amazing opportunity to live out our faith. Yes, it might cost us more to live out our faith in this “post-Christian” world – but we also reap a bigger harvest for the Lord when we do.
The Early Church attracted new believers through an unflinching willingness to go against the culture. This supernatural boldness was theirs because they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were strong and courageous in spite of their circumstances. That’s why God was able to use a small group of outcasts to take the Gospel to the far reaches of the earth.
To read more about trends in religion and culture, visit our Focus Findings site and read the report “Increasing ‘Nones’ and Shrinking Faith — Is It As Bad As It Sounds?”