The BLOG: Voices

Americans are fleeing the liberal Church – wait, what?

Death, taxes, and the decline of the Church in America. What could be more certain? And if you ask why the Church is struggling in America, you’ll likely be fed a pretty consistent story: Young people are fleeing the church because it’s perceived to be a) too involved in (probably conservative) politics, b) too conservative on social issues, or c) hostile to science. Church clashes with society’s new values.

So which church is more likely to be accused of these three things? A pleasant, liberal, inoffensive church from a mainline tradition, or a staunch evangelical church which happily conflicts with the new societal norms? Surely the latter! Then why are people fleeing mainline and liberal churches?

On May 12, 2015, Pew Research Center released the results of their 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study – repeating the same study in 2007. The headline of almost every report (Huffington Post, USA Today, CNN) focused on the sharp decline of Americans who associate with any Christian tradition – from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent in seven years. Granted, the number of Catholics dropped from 54.3 million to 50.9 million and members of mainline protestant denominations shrunk from 41.1 million to 36.0 million. However, what the headlines miss is that evangelical churches – the most offensive to 21st century society – actually grew, with number climbing from 59.8 million to 62.2 million. Thirty-five percent of Americans called themselves evangelical in 2007. In 2014, despite population growth, that percentage remained the same.

Surely the evangelical church would be less attractive to millennials, though? As it turns out, the evangelical church gained about half a million people under 30, while the mainline church remained stagnant. Despite all the causes that are often cited to explain the Church’s decline, the evangelical church is growing.

So what’s going on? Are young people drawn to evangelical churches because they love their stances on social issues? I doubt it. I think it’s because being strongly committed to principles when it comes to controversial issues correlates with a strong commitment to Christianity’s unique claims.

Church-going as a social norm is in rapid decline. Only churches willing to defend Christianity’s unique offering seem to thrive. They are, in a word, evangelical. They major in convincing people of Christianity’s relevance even when tackling the challenges of today’s society. Though this can and does offend people, it simultaneously gives people a reason to call themselves Christian. Some people are offended by the Church asking people to live by a unique moral standard, but those standards actually provide a tangible reason why Christianity actually matters today. It shows that Christianity offers something different.

Churches increasingly cannot rely on the societal institution of “Church on Sunday.” Of course, most mainline churches would affirm the importance of Christianity, but – in general – they’ve been less willing to assert anything that does not follow society’s trajectory. They may not rock the boat, but they often offer little more than a social life and lose relevance. As it turns out, those unwilling to proactively defend the uniqueness of Christian faith as of primary importance – possibly in fear of offense – find their churches converted into social clubs or apartment buildings.

It’s not all peachy for evangelicals, though. They lost three million people aged 30-50 in the last seven years. Evangelical churches are growing at under the birth rate at the moment, and while the evangelical church attracts many new people, they lose almost as many. And there is cause for hope in the mainline churches, too. I’ve noticed the gradual reappearance of a word once considered offensive, namely, “evangelism.” This is a sign that churches are looking forward, that their members have not forgotten the power of faith that is relevant at any time and in any place.

Data always forces us to check our stories. The story that young people are leaving the church because it’s too evangelical simply doesn’t match the data. The church isn’t declining because it’s offensive. It’s declining because it’s seen to be irrelevant. Churches committed to defending their unique relevance have the greatest chance at bucking the trend of the decline of the Church in America. Avoiding death and taxes will have to come in another blog post.