U.S. identity as a Christian nation is falling

This won’t come as a surprise to mainstream Protestant denominations that have seen dwindling numbers over several decades. But according to the Pew Research Center, a lower percentage of people in America are identifying themselves as Christian than in any time in the past. And more than a third of millennials don’t affiliate with any faith at all.

A new report titled “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” shows percentage downturns over the last seven years in all areas of Christianity — evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and mainline Protestants. The big growth was in the area of “unaffiliated” — from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent. Non-Christian faiths also grew slightly — from 4.7 percent to 5.9 percent.

In the last seven years, the estimated number of Christian Americans dropped from 178.1 million to 172.8 million, even as the overall population rose. “While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages,” the report says. “The same trends are seen among whites, blacks, and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.”

The drop is chiefly among American mainline Protestants and Catholics. Mainline Protestants dropped from 18.1 percent to 14.7 percent of the population, the Pew study says. Catholics dropped from 23.9 percent to 20.8 percent. Even Evangelicals dropped from an 26.3 percent to 25.4 percent.

Religion is also changing ethnically. “Even as their numbers decline, American Christians — like the U.S. population as a whole — are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse,” the Pew report says. “Non-Hispanic whites now account for smaller shares of evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Catholics than they did seven years earlier, while Hispanics have grown as a share of all three religious groups. Racial and ethnic minorities now make up 41% of Catholics (up from 35% in 2007), 24% of evangelical Protestants (up from 19%), and 14% of mainline Protestants (up from 9%).”

By far, however, the biggest take-home message from this research is the growth in the unaffiliated group. And it should come as no surprise that younger Americans are unaffiliated with any religion at higher numbers than their elders.

“While many U.S. religious groups are aging, the unaffiliated are comparatively young — and getting younger, on average, over time,” the report says. “As a rising cohort of highly unaffiliated Millennials reaches adulthood, the median age of unaffiliated adults has dropped to 36, down from 38 in 2007 and far lower than the general (adult) population’s median age of 46. By contrast, the median age of mainline Protestant adults in the new survey is 52 (up from 50 in 2007), and the median age of Catholic adults is 49 (up from 45 seven years earlier).

“Fully 36% of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34% of older Millennials (ages 25-33),” the report continues. “And fewer than six-in-ten Millennials identify with any branch of Christianity, compared with seven-in-ten or more among older generations, including Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers. Just 16% of Millennials are Catholic, and only 11% identify with mainline Protestantism. Roughly one-in-five are evangelical Protestants.”

Mainline Protestantism is certainly feeling the pinch, with 5 million fewer members. “In 2007, there were an estimated 41 million mainline Protestant adults in the United States,” the Pew study says. “As of 2014, there are roughly 36 million.” Catholics, too, are dropping in both percentages and numbers: There are an estimated 51 million U.S. Catholics today, down from an estimated 54 million in 2007.

And even though the percentage of evangelicals has dropped, the total number has not: Their numbers have grown slightly, from 59.8 million to 62.2 million.

The more important question is: What do U.S. churches do with this information? Should they change, stay the course, or what? It’s a dilemma facing churches across the U.S.

One approach might be in this piece from The Daily Show titled “Future Christ.” It features rock-star preachers, arena worship, and — Christian robots. It really must be seen to be believed.

Satire aside, churches across America are struggling, and the directions ahead aren’t clear. According to an online blog entry published in Christianity Today, a main reason for the high dropout rates among young Christians is that those dropouts never had a “firsthand faith.” Their faith just wasn’t personally meaningful to them.

“The church had not become a valued and valuable expression in their life — one that impacts how they live and how they relate and how they grow,” wrote the Rev. Ed Stetzer, an author and executive director of LifeWay Research.

“We cannot posture our student ministries to think like and act like a four-year holding tank with pizza,” he continued. “Instead, we need to prepare young adults for the spiritual challenges that will come and the faith questions they will face. Firsthand faith leads to life change and life-long commitment.”

That viewpoint is echoed in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, which called out churches for trying to change an approach that has worked for 2,000 years. “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool,’ ” the headline read. The author, writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans, wrote that church rebranding efforts can actually backfire, “especially when young people sense that there is more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following Him.”

“Many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology,” Evans wrote. “Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way.”

Instead, Evans said, making churches more inclusive is a winning message. She said her new church home is open to all — “conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, gay, straight, and even perpetual doubters like me.”

“Church attendance may be dipping, but God can survive the Internet age,” Evans wrote. “After all, He knows a thing or two about resurrection.”

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