How do we reach the next generation for Christ?
First, we must squarely face the changing religious landscape.
Multiple research reports on the shrinking of Christianity and the rise of the unchurched have been reported in the media. The most recent, the Religious Landscape Study on America, was released on May 12, 2015 by the Pew Research Center.
An energetic debate erupted over the meaning of this report. The mainstream media (Washington Post, NY Times, USA Today, NBC News) initially reported that Christianity was falling fast. These reports gave people the idea Christianity was dying.
Atheist groups (Secular Coalition of America, Secular Policy Institute and bloggers) celebrated the news like a public relations coup. Perhaps they thought they could accelerate the trend by hyping up the news.
Christian media entities (Christianity Today, Russell Moore and Ed Stetzer) took the news like a public relations challenge. They responded that the news really wasn’t that bad for the true believers. Ed Stetzer, from Lifeway Research, came out like a one-man PR machine writing pieces to set the record straight for Washington Post, USA Today and CNN.
I think the research is too important to treat like it’s just a PR battleground. When the news is spun one way and then another, people get confused. We need to take the time to truly understand what the research is saying. As much as I like and respect Ed Stetzer, I think he’s right on some points and wrong on others.
Ed’s three main takeaways are:
- Convictional Christianity is rather steady.
- There have been significant shifts with American Christianity.
- Mainline Protestantism continues to hemorrhage.
The Pew report does not use the term “convictional Christians.” When Ed uses that term, he seems to be referring to evangelical Protestants.
Pew reports little net change in the number of evangelical Protestants. Ed’s takeaway is “Convictional Christianity is rather steady.” Actually, membership is not exactly steady. Evangelicals actually see quite a bit of movement into and out of their denominations. The change in this movement is not good. There is a long-term trend of fewer baptisms and a trend of increased departures. While evangelicals are doing better than other Christian groups, they are not immune to this cultural trend.
Rise of the ‘Nones’ and the ‘Dones’
You will continue to hear the news media report on the ‘nones’ and ‘dones.’ The ‘nones’ are those who answer religious surveys with “none of the above.” Christians often refer to this group as the unchurched. The ‘dones’ are those who grew up in church but are “done with it now.” These have recently joined the ranks of the unchurched.
While there’s a lot of religious switching going on between denominations, the retention rate of the ‘nones’ is the highest of any group. At this time, statistically speaking, once a person leaves church they are less likely to rejoin.
Ed Stetzer argues that it’s the nominal Christians who are leaving the church. Perhaps Ed views the mainline denominations as having a higher percentage of nominal members.
But some evidence exists that “convictional Christians” from evangelical denominations are also leaving the church. Former evangelical pastors turned atheists include John Loftus, Dan Barker and Jerry DeWitt. All three have written books about their departure from the Christian faith.
Atheists see this as a trend and seek to encourage it through The Clergy Project, a website designed to provide intellectual and emotional support “for current and former religious professionals without supernatural beliefs.” A number of former evangelical pastors share their journey to unbelief on this website.
“It’s remarkably widespread,” said Alan Cooperman, director of religion research for the Pew Research Center. “The country is becoming less religious as a whole, and it’s happening across the board.”
A major shift away from faith and toward naturalism is going on in America, especially among the younger generation. To pretend trend is not affecting evangelical churches is short-sighted.
* The unchurched segment is growing fast and will soon be the largest segment of the religious population in America.
* Millennials are driving the growth of ‘nones’ and ‘dones.’ University students and recent graduates are driving up this number. Many believe science has disproven the Bible and Christianity is not intellectually viable.
* Atheism/Agnosticism is on the rise. While the total number of atheists/agnostics is still small, they are becoming far more influential because of the influential positions they hold.
So is Christianity in America dying? No, but it isn’t healthy. The Pew report is a wake-up call that can help direct and energize our efforts to slow and eventually reverse this trend.
People leave the church for a variety of reasons. Many times they leave because someone hurt their feelings or they got caught in sin. When this happens, as in the case of John Loftus, people go looking for evidence why they should not believe in God.
In 2009, Pew Research Center asked former church members this question: “Has science proven the Bible to be superstition?” Some 32% of former Catholics and 32% of former Protestants said yes.
Pathway to Health
The truth is just the opposite. Science and the Bible are compatible. And modern science, including the Big Bang theory, is strongly supportive of the concept of a Creator God.
The church has answers to the intellectual doubts held by university students and recent graduates, but we have not done a good job of getting these answers into student’s hands. The church cannot afford to ignore the university students any longer.
Students at the university are looking for answers to the big questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? Does God exist? Does life have a purpose?
If we are going to reach the next generation for Christ, we have to do it together and we have to reach them on the university campus.
My next post will describe our plan to partner with local churches and active campus ministries (Cru, Intervarsity, Navigators, Baptist Student Union, Alpha Chi and others) to reach students for Christ.
I will also explain how you can be a part of this great movement of God on the university campus.
Please keep Factbridge in prayer.
And if you haven’t read my booklet “Why Three Brilliant Atheists Became Christians,” please click on the link so you can.
May God continue to bless you richly!