Nearly two-thirds of Americans still call themselves Christians, but the number has decreased 12 percentage points over the last decade, according to a Pew Forum report on the country’s religious landscape. And while the number of both Protestants and Catholics decreased, those unaffiliated with a religion grew as a share of the population—up from 12% in 2009 to 17% now.
The rapid decline is cause for concern, said two Baptist leaders with ties to the Midwest, and a call for churches to renew their commitment to God’s mission to reach all people with the gospel.
“The increasingly secularization of America troubles me greatly, both as an American and as a Christian,” said Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. “While, of course, my first concern is for the Lord’s church, as a citizen I’m troubled by our nation’s spiritual trajectory.
“Studies indicating moral and spiritual decline should awaken the church to the urgency of its gospel mission, and I’m praying it will do just that.”
According to Pew, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% ten years ago. The share of Catholics in the U.S. is 20%, down from 23%.
David Dockery is professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth and former president of Trinity International University in Deerfield, Ill. He said the numbers are troubling, especially in terms of general cultural trends. “When the numbers are evaluated a bit more closely, however, the decline can primarily be found among liberal and mainline Protestant denominations, which have seen a precipitous loss from 30% of the population to about 10% of the population,” Dockery said.
“While the number of evangelicals has slipped slightly over this time, the number of evangelicals continues to be much more consistent in comparison to mainline Protestantism.” Similarly, Dockery added, the largest regional changes are on the East and West Coasts, more so than in the Midwest or South.
“Still, given that the overall population in the country continues to expand and that there are few hopeful indicators regarding the growth of Christianity,” he said, “these statistics are a wake-up call for us to pray for and work toward revitalization and renewal in our churches and among society as a whole.”
‘Nones’ on the rise
Atheism and agnosticism have risen among U.S. adults over the last decade, Pew reported, but the largest increase is in the number of people who describe their religious affiliation as “nothing in particular.” Currently, 17% of U.S. adults describe themselves that way, up from 12% in 2009.
“The rise of the ‘nones’ is very real,” Dockery said, noting the numbers are especially concerning when broken down by generation.
More than one-third of people age 18-30 identify as religious unaffiliated, and while the trend doesn’t necessarily mean a rise of atheism, Dockery said, it does point to a spirituality that is disconnected from the church and Christian doctrinal foundations. Some have labeled this kind of spirituality “moral therapeutic deism,” Dockery said.
“We are certainly seeing trends to which Peter Berger, the former Boston University sociologist, was pointing several years ago when he warned us of the increase of religious privatization and pluralization, [and] the influence of secularization leading to what he called cognitive contamination, resulting in the loss of plausibility structures.” (“Plausibility structure” is a term coined by Berger to describe the context in which something is deemed plausible or true.)
“The loss of plausibility structures regarding the truthfulness and transformational power of the Christian gospel seems now to make it much easier for each succeeding generation in North American to dismiss the claims of Christ or to ignore them altogether,” Dockery said.
“Churches must give heightened attention to the reality of these trends, particularly when it comes to equipping those in the churches to live, think, and serve in a more faithful Christian manner.”