In September 2022, Pew Research Center released a startling report that claimed – in rather stark terms – “Christians could make up less than half of the U.S. population within a few decades.“
With headlines like “America’s Christian majority is on track to end” and “America’s Christian majority could end by 2070,” the report’s findings ricocheted across secular news outlets with an unmistakable hint of glee and schadenfreude.
But for those of us in ministry (or who’ve simply been paying attention), the projections came as less of a surprise. Did we really need longitudinal survey data to tell us what we’ve been witnessing firsthand for years?
Some of us (myself included) would counter Pew Research’s projections with an equally bold claim: America’s so-called Christian majority likely ended decades ago – especially if one considers “lifestyle markers” like regular church attendance, Bible reading, and prayer.
Therefore, Pew Research’s projections might be pointing toward a different cultural phenomenon: An unwillingness to be associated with what passes for Christianity in America today.
And that could actually be good news for Christianity.
Bursting the Christian Bubble
What’s happening to American Christianity isn’t exactly unprecedented or unique.
The “Capital-C Church” has been around for two thousand years, and during that time, it’s undergone multiple iterations and cultural adaptations – not all of them for the better, and not all of them for the worst.
Richard Halverson, the former chaplain of the United States Senate, said,
In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centered on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.”
American Christian dominance began to fade during the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. During this period, the fragile illusion of an American “monoculture” shattered, and ordinary people began questioning religion’s role in the new cultural landscape.
At the same time, the “American Christian Enterprise” focused a lot of time, money, and energy on crafting content and experiences for Christians by Christians in response to the writing on the wall.
So, instead of integrating into a changing culture, the Church isolated itself from the culture – producing its own music, movies, books, conferences, schools, and celebrities. And that strategy worked very well – for a little while.
See, this Christian “bubble” slowly ceases to become very supportive of Christians seeking to influence and engage the world in a way that’s taken seriously – nor is it very compelling to outsiders. (It also doesn’t help that much of the “art” created within the Christian bubble simply isn’t very good).
In Roaring Lions, Bob Briner wrote (in 1996!),
We feel we are making a difference because we are so important to ourselves. But what we’ve really done is create a ghetto that is easily dismissed by the rest of society.”
In other words, modern secular culture isn’t so much antagonistic toward Christian culture as it is completely indifferent toward what it has to offer the world anymore. At this point, cultural relevancy fades, engagement falters, and decline becomes inevitable.
But American Christianity isn’t going down without a fight – for better and worse.
Our Own Worst Enemy
The Christian majority’s impending demise provokes a lot of different reactions, but no response is perhaps more damaging than the rise of Culture War Christianity.
Culture War Christianity is the Christianity of talk radio and Facebook memes, a religious ideology riddled with conspiracy theories, wrapped in political hatred, and motivated by cultural resentment.
Operating primarily from a place of fear, Culture War Christianity views itself as a besieged Christian remnant, under fire and attack by the barbarians pounding at the gate – always the victim, always on the cusp of annihilation.
But the “culture war” is ultimately a war of attrition – a neverending conflict that views cultural supremacy and political dominance as the only acceptable endgame. To that aim, Christians who willingly enlist in the culture war will inevitably find themselves indebted to a rogue’s gallery of increasingly immoral politicians and desperate partisan agitators.
As Culture War Christianity becomes more antithetical to the lifestyle and teachings of Jesus, it becomes easier to criticize, ridicule, and dismiss as hypocritical, out of touch, and dangerous. And that’s because a Christianity more preoccupied with “winning” and preserving power isn’t a Christianity particularly interested in loving God or people.
And if winning the culture war comes at the expense of further alienating the people we claim need Jesus the most, then winning is actually losing, right?
The End is Just Another Beginning
So, how can the decline of America’s Christian majority and the rise of Culture War Christianity be a good thing for Christianity?
Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but whenever the church finds itself compromised by competing interests (the desire to dominate, for instance), small pockets of faithful Christians begin challenging the status quo, stripping away cultural baggage, and reimagining news ways to live out the Gospel.
Call them reformations, revolutions, revivals, or migrations, but the ashes of one form of Christianity almost always give rise to a more faithful re-evaluation of the church.
God hasn’t called us to reclaim the church of decades or generations past – He’s called us to love and shepherd the church of right now.
In A Creative Minority, Jon Tyson and Heather Grizzle write,
“We need a vision that is not based on a fear of a godless future, or a longing for an idealized past, but a rich presence in our own time that inspires the beauty and possibility of Christ’s church.“
The purpose of the Church isn’t the preservation of itself through amassing political power and cultural relevance. The purpose of the Church is the people God wants to bless through the work of the church.
Because the Church is at its best when it’s pouring itself out in sacrificial love for the people within and outside its walls.
To that end, church should be a place where Christians are equipped, directed, and empowered to become the hands and feet of Christ.
And a place where outsiders feel welcomed, loved, and inspired by the community of Christ pooling their passion, resources, artistry, intellect, and grace to love God and love people.
For the record, this is already happening in faith communities all over the United States.
If you look closely enough, you’ll notice a quiet – but growing – trend of young (and older) Christians asking serious questions about their faith and its role in society and culture.
You’ll find Christians rolling up their sleeves and giving voice to the voiceless, caring for the poor, speaking truth to power, and embodying Jesus’s creative and nonviolent approach to cultural renewal – just like they have been for centuries.
As the philosopher and architect Buckminister Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.“
How to Not Lose Hope in the Church When It Looks Like “Bad Religion” is Winning
I believe we are caught up in the middle of a great transition (a “reformation,” if you will) as the Church reinvents itself for a new era.
The old form will linger and cling to life, but the dropping attendance rates, fear tactics, and tribalistic thinking are merely the birth pangs for something much more beautiful and transformative on the horizon.
However, that transition will be rough, painful, and – at times – infuriating and demoralizing.
For the next few years (and maybe decades), it’ll appear as if Culture War Christianity and other forms of “bad religion” are winning. But churches that double down on extremist political rhetoric during turbulent times will reap short-term gains at the expense of long-term growth.
And that’s because Culture War Christianity is alienating the very types of people it needs to sustain itself. More and more followers of Jesus – especially those of younger generations – are simply uninterested in participating in an angry political movement masquerading as a religious ideology.
Religious movements that bear Jesus’s name that produce bad fruit – like hatred, division, selfish ambition, and greed – will inevitably be pruned and wither away – as has been the case throughout history.
Will the end of America’s Christian majority result in a more “immoral” future? Possibly. But we also need to remember that America at its most “Christian” (statistically speaking) wasn’t particularly kind or just to minorities and women.
God doesn’t need Christians to “save” Christianity (or America, for that matter). He just wants to Christians to love, live, and lead like Jesus.
In a culture consumed with anger and cynicism, the answer isn’t throwing more anger and cynicism into the mix. But that’s what so many Christians seem intent on bringing to the table.
As Culture War Christianity burns itself to the ground in the ensuing decades, the most subversive and provocative witness a faithful remnant can offer the world is hope, love, and kindness.
And it’s there that you’ll find the seeds of renewal already sprouting and reaching toward the heavens.
Note: A version of this article appeared on Carey Nieuwhof.com