John Stonestreet welcomes Lifeway Research's Ed Stetzer to sort out fact from fiction when it comes to the state of evangelical Christianity today.
Christians have good reason to be concerned about encroaching godlessness in the culture and in the world in general. But at what point might we cross the line between being realistic and being alarmists? Well, during this week's brodcast, John Stonestreet tackles that question with guest Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research, who reminds us to keep an even keel regardless of circumstances.
“The worse the news is, the faster it travels,” says Stetzer. And he knows. Having spent years studying and quantifying trends in Christianity, he's an old pro at distinguishing established facts from urban legends, particularly the negative ones so frequently heard from today's evangelical pulpits.
One narrative in particular has become prevalent in recent years, he explains. It views Christianity in America as dying or on the verge of collapse, owing largely to reports that millennials are leaving the church, and a perception that the number of self-identified Christians has shrunk. But that's far from the full story. In fact, no serious researcher who studies the subject believes Christianity as a whole in this country is in imminent peril.
The church in America isn't doing well by several important measures, Stetzer admits. But it's hardly on its last leg. Nor has there been a mass exodus of young people from the evangelical faith, as is commonly reported. Rather, shifts have taken place that make it appear superficially as if American believers are jumping ship in historic numbers. But what's actually happening has more to do with nominal Christianity going out of fashion than it does with vibrant belief falling by the wayside.
“The reality is that when it comes to statistics, mainline Protestantism and evangelicalism might as well be two different religions,” he explains. From a statistical standpoint, evangelicals are actually fairly good at passing on their faith to the next generation. But mainline Protestant rosters, Stetzer adds, are in freefall. This explains much of the perceived collapse of Christianity in America—a country long dominated by the mainline denominations. Now largely liberal and aged, these churches hold little appeal for younger Christians, many of whom choose to identify instead with an evangelical body, or simply identify themselves as what they are: secular.
“This whole 'sky-is-falling' Chicken Little syndrome causes us to make bad decisions,” he explains. “We could name people right now who would say, 'Look! Evangelicalism is dying, so you should change your views.’ And it almost always looks like mainline Protestantism, which is the last thing you'd want to change your views to if you're following statistics alone. Bad facts based on bad stats lead to bad decisions. I think we need to make a realistic appraisal of where we are in order to make biblically discerned decisions about where we go from here.”
Over 70% of Americans still identify themselves as “Christians.” But a mere 25% show signs of dedicated Christian faith, like regular church attendance. The balance are what Stetzer calls “the mushy middle”—those who've long identified as Christians out of cultural expedience or sheer inertia, and who've largely inhabited mainline denominations. But now many are leaving organized religion behind, preferring a buffet-style faith. Thus the “mushy middle” is becoming what one sociologist termed “the nones”—those who don't identify with a particular tradition or denomination, and who often entertain beliefs alien to historic Christianity.
“We’ve lost our homefield advantage as convictional Christians in the culture,” he says, “A strong majority of Americans still call themselves Christians. But they tend to be ‘spiritual but not religious’…they tend to be Christian, but not convictional...This is why it feels so different around us: The reason that evangelical listeners will listen to this and say, ‘I just feel like everything has shifted,’ is because it has. What’s shifted is that [the mushy middle] still call themselves Christians but they now identify their worldview as secular people with a Christian veneer.”
Because of this confusion, says Stetzer, other myths about American Christianity have gained just as much currency among evangelicals. Particularly harmful is the idea that Christian marriages end in divorce at exactly the same rate as those between non-Christians. Failing to distinguish between cultural and convictional Christianity, he says, has added fuel to this legend.
“It is true that Christians divorce at the same rate as non-Christians if and only if you believe that 75% of the population that says they’re Christians actually are. And if you believe that, I also have some land to sell you...This is not ground-breaking research. You look at the general social survey. Compare those who actually attend church, let alone if they’re ‘born again,’ or have a self-identified commitment [and] the numbers shift drastically.”
It turns out that religious devotion manifested in regular church attendance is one of the best predictors of marital success. In other words, the more seriously Christians take their faith, the less likely they are to become a cultural divorce statistic.
When pastors repeat this myth, warns Stetzer, they effectively tell their congregations that coming to church makes no difference. “That's statistically wrong, it's misleading, and it undermines what should be a safe place that actually builds up marriage.”
False as these rumors are, the state of evangelicalism in America is far from sunshine and buttercups. While evangelical churches remain full and outwardly vibrant, research has made it increasingly clear that evangelical faith is often shallow, lacking in discipleship or theological instruction.
A recent study conducted by Lifeway in partnership weith Ligonier Ministires highlighted this fact by asking a cross-section of evangelicals to answer simple doctrinal questions distinguishing historic orthodoxy from heresy. The results weren't encouraging. 31 percent of self-identified evangelicals either agree or have no feelings about the statement, “God the Father is more divine than Jesus.” 27 percent say they think Jesus is the first creature created by God. Worse still, 58% either affirm that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force and not a personal Being, or aren't sure.
“There’s a word for those beliefs,” says Stetzer. “They’re called heresies.” Arianism and Sebellianism, errors rejected by the early ecumenical councils, figure prominently among well-meaning but poorly-informed evangelicals.
“We are raising up a generation of evangelicals who do not know the Scriptures and therefore do not know theology,” he says. And in an increasingly hostile culture, the fact that most evangelicals aren't sure whether or not the Trinity consists in three Persons spells trouble. “A poorly-developed Christian worldview in the midst of a shifting culture is a recipe for disaster.”
That's why Stetzer believes that in the midst of the cultural Christianity's collapse and the growth of what he calls Pacific Northwest-style apathetic secularism, evangelicals have a duty to put our theological house in order. Doing so could mean, ironically, a bright future for believers in this country.
“What a post-Christian future points to is a more robust Christian experience. So I think, as nominal Christianity kind of dies away, Christians are going to get more serious, churches are going to get more focused on disciple making and I think this kind of transition has to happen…If we’re going to have a Christian future (and I think we are) then it’s going to be with Christians who know the Gospel, are living out its implications faithfully, more fruitfully in their lives, and really knowing theology better.”
"BreakPoint This Week" is hosted by John Stonestreet, co-host of the BreakPoint daily radio commentary as well as The Point.