Thursday, April 19, 2018

New Research Shows American Christianity is in Better Shape than Many Believe

I  wrote this review article for Pneuma Review, and it was posted there on April 19, 2018, and now re-issued. For the article (which is more acceptable for citing in papers or research journals, etc.) go HERE.  Hint: if you are a Spirit-filled Believer you should bookmark and  check out this fine journal often.

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Glen T. Stanton, “New Harvard Research Says U.S. Christianity Is Not Shrinking, But Growing Stronger,” The Federalist (January 22, 2018) HERE

The above cited article is a summary article, and below is original research that encompasses many studies on the topic. Both are very encouraging, especially in view of the bad news we Christians have been hearing about the eventual demise of the Church in America, or at least its marginalization as has happened in Western Europe. New and careful analysis shows, for instance, that in the US the percentage of persons attending church services once a week has increased every decade since the Nation’s founding.  Yes, that‘s right, many a patriot soldier of 1775 was also an agnostic or deist. Thank God there was a leaven of Christians.

The percentage of Christians who go to church often has been steady for decades. The losses in Church attendance and the rise of the category of “nones,” those not affiliated with any church, is not necessarily bad news. That is, those losses are almost entirely due to decline in mainline churches where belief in the Bible is weak and liberal theology strong.

The article below shows, in great detail and with graphs, that the percentage of Christians who go to church often, has been steady for decades. The losses are from nominal believers who no longer feel social pressure to remain in church or be identified as Christian.

Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock, “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion: A Response to Recent Research,” Sociological Science 4 (2017), pages 686-700. HERE

Here is the abstract from that article:

Recent research argues that the United States is secularizing, that this religious change is consistent with the secularization thesis, and that American religion is not exceptional. But we show that rather than religion fading into irrelevance as the secularization thesis would suggest, intense religion—strong affiliation, very frequent practice, literalism, and evangelicalism—is persistent and, in fact, only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States. We also show that in comparable countries, intense religion is on the decline or already at very low levels. Therefore, the intensity of American religion is actually becoming more exceptional over time. We conclude that intense religion in the United States is persistent and exceptional in ways that do not fit the secularization thesis.

Let me personalize this. I recall from my  childhood in the 1950’s that most of my Catholic relatives would have said “yes,” if they were asked if they were Christians. But in reality they were only nominal Catholics who attended church on holidays and weddings (and their own funerals). As a Hispanic in New York, part of their specific identity was to be called “Catholic.” This is the type of person who is now leaving the churches in droves, and it is not a bad thing. It avoids statistical confusion, the persons who stay in churches now are mostly really disciples of the Lord, and the “nominals” are now “nones” and clearly outside of the Church. 

With this situation there is less problem of so-called sheep stealing. For instance, one of my uncles became an Evangelical in the early 1960’s and that was a scandal to my other Catholic aunts and uncles, many of whom did not go to Church, but as part of the Hispanic middle class considered Evangelicalism low-class, emotional, and cultic.

Today, as the research shows, the persons who remain in church are more likely to be real disciples of the Lord. In the world we are in there is a social pressure not to be a Christian. This is especially true of certain academic and service professions such as counseling. What remains in many churches, including the Anglican Church of which I am a part of, are persons who are truly Christian, believe in the Bible and pray powerfully.

This is a sea-change from most churches decades ago (excepting Pentecostals). In my childhood I never saw a person healed by prayer, a layman laying hands on a sick person, or someone in distress praying out loud fervently. I see such things practically every Sunday and that now is common in many Evangelical and Spirit-filled churches.

All of which is to say that Christians in America have shifted from doctrinal confessionalism to doctrinally casual but experientially active, as in various healing ministries. This is especially true of many “non-denominational” congregations which blend Evangelical theology with various degrees of charismatic activity. Usually they are not bound to traditional denominational catechisms.

So I personally witness to the correctness of this article. The statistics may show a decline, but in reality there has been a steady increase among devout Christians.

I think something else is happing.  God is setting the stage for another Great Awakening in America. As this process of shedding the “nominals” and weak believers continues, the surviving churches will be filled by pastors and lay persons with ever greater faith and skills in effective prayer. This is an exciting time to live. There could be a moment, when all this comes together and churches across denominational lines unite id welcoming a new Holy Spirit revival.  Let us pray that we see a new Awakening begin!

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