In a study just released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the verdict is clear: “The American religious landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation.” In my last blog I detailed the 14 statistical headlines.
Here are three necessarily blunt interpretations:
1. White Christians are not America.
Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30% as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81%) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination, and a majority (55%) were white Protestants.
What does this mean?
A lot. Not only does it mean that fewer “whites” identify as Christian – which is to be expected with the rise of the “nones” – but also that white Christians as a whole have become a minority group in American culture. The future of the American church lies not only in regaining its evangelistic edge, but in embracing diversity. In fact, apart from embracing diversity, there can be no evangelistic edge. It’s not simply that America is no longer about “white Christians,” but that Christianity is not about white Americans. Of course, it goes without saying that this diversity is also what will help the church regain its moral standing when speaking out against many of the ills of our day. If the church is going to be the church in the face of racism and hate, bigotry and prejudice, it will need to address its own lack of inclusion.
2. Evangelicals are no longer immune from decline.
White evangelical Protestants were once thought to be bucking a longer trend, but over the past decade their numbers have dropped substantially. Fewer than one in five (17%) Americans are white evangelical Protestant, but they accounted for nearly one-quarter (23%) in 2006.
What does this mean?
Evangelicals have long prided themselves that, despite national drops in church attendance, it was the mainlines taking the hit. Further, it was believed that what protected evangelicals from the mainline decline was their robust embrace of biblical orthodoxy. Now that evangelicals are experiencing decline as well, there will be some who will say it’s because evangelicals are selling out like the mainlines did, and there must be renewed attention to biblical fidelity. There might be some truth to that, but I would argue that what has protected evangelicals until recently was their embrace of evangelicalism, which not only includes biblical orthodoxy but a commitment to evangelism. Even when a commitment to orthodoxy remains steadfast, if a joint commitment to evangelism is not present, then decline will be inevitable.
3. The “nones” really are nothing.
Atheists and agnostics account for only about one-quarter (27%) of all religiously unaffiliated Americans. Nearly six in ten (58%) religiously unaffiliated Americans identify as secular, someone who is not religious; 16% of religiously unaffiliated Americans nonetheless report that they identify as a “religious person.”
What does this mean?
I’ve long argued that the principal challenge to the Christian faith is not philosophical atheism, but functional atheism. When it comes to the Christian faith, it’s not that people are thinking about it and rejecting it; they aren’t thinking about it at all. So we are not combating atheism, but apatheism. All the more reason to remind ourselves that we are no longer speaking to the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem (Acts 2) but more to those standing on Mars Hill (Acts 17), and we must change tactics accordingly.
James Emery White
Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones, “America’s Changing Religious Identity,” PRRI, September 6, 2017, read online.
Emma Green, “The Non-Religious States of America,” CityLab, September 6, 2017, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.