- Two major studies on role of Christianity in America released in 2016
- Number of ‘religiously unaffiliated’ (23%) on the rise
- Largest decline by far is found in white Catholics
- 42% who identify as ‘Christian’ are non-practicing
September 2016 saw the release of two studies examining the role of Christianity in modern America. The Barna Group released The State of the Church 2016 and the Public Religion Research Institute released Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion – and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back. The reports are interesting as stand-alone reading, but a statistical comparison of their similarities and differences might tell us more than taking either report individually.
Statistics are an interesting animal. Most of us are uninterested enough in raw data to want to look at a spreadsheet of results and draw our own interpretations, so we rely on accompanying articles and commentary. But how do we know whether or not that commentary is an accurate reflection of the data? Take for example the following two sub-headlines taken from each of the articles listed above:
“Why Are Americans Leaving Religion?”
“Most Americans Identify As Christian”
Don’t those headlines feel remarkably contradictory? If not in precise interpretation, they at least feel antithetical in tone. One feels hopeful for the church, the others hopeless. One feels pessimistic about the future of Christianity in America, the other filled with optimism.
So what story do the numbers really tell?
Religious Belief vs. Religious Affiliation
One of the most important factors when drawing conclusions from any statistical study is to study the vocabulary associated with the data. This may come as a surprise but in statistical analysis the words can sometimes be more important than the numbers.
The PRRI study found that one-in-four Americans (25%) describe themselves as “religiously unaffiliated”, and that number jumps to 40% for those under 30 years of age. These numbers have been increasing steadily since the early 1990s.
What this study doesn’t indicate is people’s feelings towards their religious beliefs. It’s true that a significant percentage of those who claim no religious affiliation would also claim atheism or agnosticism as their belief system; but we can’t assume that is true for all unaffiliated people. Some have made up their mind about religion, but many have not. Many are searching. Many are doubting. Many have strongly held beliefs but don’t know how to categorize them – or perhaps they don’t know if they want to categorize them for the purposes of a survey.
“Christian leaders should be much more concerned with the 42% of Americans who are non-practicing Christians than the ~23% of Americans who are unaffiliated. The former number is the one that will cause the latter one to skyrocket over time.”
What is clear from the results of the PRRI survey is that an increasing percentage of Americans are comfortable living as uncategorized when it comes to their religious beliefs. Americans – particularly young Americans – are progressively comfortable finding their identities elsewhere and allowing their religious beliefs time to establish themselves. This part is not all bad news for the church, but churches must be aware of this trend and should be looking for ways to engage this generation and make church affiliation something that matters, something that is important, something that does help them establish their identities.
Worse news for the church actually comes later in the PRRI study, where it is claimed that “…the vast majority of unaffiliated Americans formerly identified with a particular religion.” The largest decline by far is found in white Catholics, whose losses double the next largest affiliation groups.
Christianity’s Role in America
Barna paints a similar story, though there are some notable differences.
Barna places the ranks of the “unaffiliated” at around 20% (we’ll make it 21% and swallow up the “Not Sure” group for our purposes). This is a small but significant difference from the 25% in the PRRI study. All things being equal (relative size of the study, data gathering methods, etc.), mathematicians would look at this data and likely conclude the actual ranks of the unaffiliated stand somewhere at 23% – probably a small difference of error from the results of each study.
The Barna survey has 73% of Americans identifying as Christian, but a full 48% of the country as living post-Christian lifestyle. I’ll allow the Barna article to explain the exact method of number crunching, but based on a series of factors they have determined that approximately 31% of Americans are “practicing” Christians. This means 42% of Americans claim Christianity but don’t practice it in any noticeable way. This feels like a less auspicious finding than anything in the PRRI study. Individuals who are actively de-affiliating from a religion are at least thinking about their choices and considering what they believe and why they believe it. Those who check the box marked Christianity mindlessly but put no thought into what that choice means in their daily lives? That seems like it will have a much larger impact on Christianity’s American population in the long term. Imagine a family that falls in this category; the parents claim Christianity but don’t live it out with their children in any meaningful ways. Going back to the PRRI study, the second-leading reason for becoming disaffiliated is “My family was never that religious growing up (32% of unaffiliated respondents who left their religion of birth).”
Christian leaders should be much more concerned with the 42% of Americans who are non-practicing Christians than the ~23% of Americans who are unaffiliated. The former number is the one that will cause the latter one to skyrocket over time.
This leads us to an interesting conundrum. The PRRI study has headlines and words that paint a worse picture than the numbers actually do. The Barna study has numbers that are more discouraging than the words they used to frame them. Both studies are clear though — we live in a post-Christian nation. The trend in America is away from Christianity, and every numerical indicator implies that the trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. How will American churches respond?
Let’s not fret for the church as a whole. Plenty of other studies have outlined how the church is thriving in places like China and Africa. Jesus promised Peter that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against the church, so we can rest safely that a growing disaffection among upper-middle-class American Caucasians is not going to be the one thing is history to take down Christianity. Thanks be to God!