March 27, 2018
The 2016 election should have put a lot of stories to rest -- including the supposed collapse of evangelical Christianity. A year and a half later, the media still can't wrap its head around our numbers, which continue to hold steady even when other faith groups decline. If there's a population in danger of extinction, a new analysis points out, it isn't evangelicals!
For the liberal media, who've been trying to put evangelicals on a milk carton for 30 years, the real story is the freefall of mainline Protestants. In a study of the General Social Survey, Aaron Earls insists that pundits have been focusing on the wrong demographic. If they want to explain the drop in church attendance, it's time to look somewhere else. "In the mid 1970s," Earls points out, "close to 30 percent of Americans attended a mainline Protestant church. After decades of membership loss, only 10 percent said they attended in 2016." In fact, he says, "Since 1990, there has not been a single year of growth for mainline Protestant church attendance."
Add that to the rise of the "religiously unaffiliated," (which, at 22 percent is just a couple points behind evangelicals), and some of the trends start to make sense. While America's faith landscape is changing, evangelicals have held surprisingly steady. "Since 1972, evangelical church attenders have grown from 18 percent of the population. After reaching 30 percent in 1993, the share has hovered around 25 percent, ranging from 27 to 23 percent." Some of that goes to the heart of evangelicalism, which calls us to go and make disciples of Christ. There's a natural growth component in our faith, as more people are brought to the saving love of Jesus.
Evangelicals do a better job holding on to their young people, Lisa Green explained a couple of years ago. "About two-thirds of those raised in the evangelical tradition are staying in the faith -- a rate surpassed within Christianity only by the historically black church." That's not to say there isn't work to be done. Millennials are slipping away from their faith roots at an alarming rate, thanks in large part to the liberal indoctrination they're getting in government schools and college campuses. Parents have to be increasingly vigilant, taking every opportunity to reinforce their values at home.
As for mainline churches, empty pews are just part of the problem. Empty preaching is the other. When a denomination abandons the truth or waters down Scripture's teachings, it reduces church to another hour of Dr. Phil -- which is something Americans can get without ever leaving home. That abandonment of principle is leading to a decline in membership, especially among the more liberal denominations. As more churches move away from biblical authority, their attendance suffers. Ask the Episcopal Church, whose membership is a fraction of what it once was after its leadership endorsed same-sex marriage.
That's the problem with our aggressively secular and sexualized culture -- it's chipped away at the idea that truth is absolute. And lately, too many churches are reflecting the culture instead of confronting it. On the bright side, this survey is a good opportunity for the authentic church to separate itself from the mush and stand up for the message of radical faith. Yes, we need to speak the truth in love -- but speak the truth nonetheless.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.