Fewer People Claiming to be Christian Might be a Good Thing

Statististics show that it is not as popular to be a Christian in the US as it used to be

Numerous groups study US demographics. The studies do not probe the convictions of the people interviewed. Instead, they rely on the self-identification by individuals interviewed. The precise numbers reported vary slightly from study to study, but overall, it is clear that fewer people self-identify as Christian today than in 1990. The American Religious Identification Survey in 1990 reported that about 86% of American adults self-identified as Christian, but by 2008, that proportion had fallen to 76%. Other studies report that increasing numbers of American adults claim no religious connection at all.

Christians in general have deplored the drop in numbers of Christians in the population. They likewise complain of the erosion of Christian values in the culture or of real aggression against Christians. Courts are full of cases that involve various aspects of the cultural conflicts that demonstrate that US culture no longer considers Christian values and practices to be the norm for the country. In fact, despite ample evidence that the population of the original thirteen colonies was predominantly Christian, it is not uncommon for contemporary American citizens to say that this nation was never a Christian nation. The younger the demographic, the more likely it is that American adults will claim no connection with religion in any form.

Christians who hold a Christian worldview should rejoice that the word Christian is coming to mean a distinctive worldview

In a 2009 report, the Barna Group defined a Christian worldview:

For the purposes of the survey, a “biblical worldview” was defined as believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today. In the research, anyone who held all of those beliefs was said to have a biblical worldview.

The surveys of American Christians from which this report was drawn revealed that only 9% of Americans hold the worldview described above. This statistic correlates closely with statistics that show marked declines in the number of people who regard the Bible as sacred or as a source of useful guidance for daily life.

Nevertheless, if people used to say they were Christian out of habit or fear of the culture rather than out of faith, then maybe the declining numbers mean something good. Maybe the change in the statistics actually means that people do not want to self-identify as Christians if they really do not choose to live by Christian teaching.

In an article in Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer points to four positive trends for Christians that make the statistics sound a lot less bleak:

  1. The word “Christian” will become less used and more clear
  2. The Nominals will increasingly become Nones
  3. Christians will increasingly change cultural tactics
  4. More robust churches will result from nominalism

When these points are probed, Christians who live in relationship with Christ and accept Christ’s call to a life of discipleship should anticipate that it may not be more comfortable to share Christ in the future, but it will almost certainly be easier to communicate the truth than it is when people believe that being a church member is equivalent to being Christian.

When people confuse church membership with being a Christian, it is harder to share Christ

Many Christians have discerned that friends needed Christ only to hear, “I’m already a church member,” when they bring up the subject. As long as people believe that church membership is Christianity, it is very hard to talk with them about a relationship with Christ. They already believe that they have their world in order. Many people hold the view that God will reward them for being faithful in church attendance as long as they say they are sorry for telling lies and gossiping. They have so thoroughly trivialized the meaning of being a Christian that it is a daunting task to make the gospel even comprehensible. Many American Christians have no more idea what Christianity is than the Pharisees had, for the same reason: they think it is about keeping the rules and obeying the church hierarchy.

It will be easier to confront someone with the truth about Christ if that person happily identifies as not Christian

For most of the history of the USA, it has been comfortable and culturally desirable to be a Christian. People who say that their religion is Christianity, even though they do not know Christ at all, are comfortable just the way they are. They have no interest in being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. They do not want to be bothered by their religion. They claim to be Christian the same way they claim membership in a gym or a country club, a membership that can make no uncomfortable claims on them, even if they do suffer pangs now and then over missing church, failing to work out regularly or not doing their part for the country club’s annual charity drive.

Today, the culture is smirkingly scornful of Christians. Their faith is seen in some circles as childish behavior, equivalent to clinging to an old teddy bear. In other circles, Christianity is aggressively targeted for having “imposed” its “rules” on people who want nothing to do with it. More and more, it is unpopular to claim to be a Christian. The popular choices are either to have no religion, or to be spiritual but not religious. In this context, many people who used to claim to be Christian are now abandoning that claim. Some Christian leaders speak of the change as “falling away,” but the truth is that the people who now assert their disconnect with religion seldom had any faith to “fall away” from. They simply got tired of the pretense. The people who leave frequently open blogs where they regularly rip away at their own pasts, openly declaring that they never believed in any part of their past “Christian” lives.

Christians always should applaud the truth, even the ugly truths. It is better for everyone when people do not claim to be Christian when they do not know Christ.

It is not a benefit for a church to be filled with “members” who have no relationship with Christ

Church leaders and grassroots members alike feel sad when membership numbers decline, but they should actually rejoice when people who have no faith in Christ stop claiming to be Christians or to be church members. Church members, and especially church leaders, who have no faith in Christ can lead churches in very bad directions. For example, church leaders who do not believe that the Bible is the inspired revelation of God, given by him for guidance in faith in life, have promulgated numerous heretical changes in churches across the USA.

In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America declared, ““The scriptural witness does not address the context of sexual orientation and lifelong loving and committed relationships that we experience today.”In plain language, the ELCA stated that humans had outgrown the Bible. They had evolved to a place where they knew things God forgot to address in his revelation of himself. When any person who claims to be Christian feels that the Bible is an ancient, obsolete book about “the sacred” and not God’s guide for faith and life, then that person simply does not need to be a member of a Christian church. It is not a good thing for a church to have members that feel this way. The departure of “members” who feel no relationship with Christ and find no value in the Bible is no loss to the church.

It is good for the Kingdom of God when people who are outside that kingdom know and acknowledge that they are outside.

When Jesus was talking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, he explained why he had come into the world. Jesus said, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17 ESV) Jesus came to live in time and space because he loved people. After his death and resurrection, as he ascended to heaven, he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV) Jesus wanted everyone who followed him to do what he had done. Christians are not saved in order to increase the membership in churches. They are not saved in order to give bigger offerings. They are not even saved in order to send food to Haiti or drill wells in Rwanda.

Christians are saved in order to love people as much as Christ did. They are called to share Christ with everyone they meet. The ultimate shape of each person’s calling is unique, so some do feed the hungry and some do drill wells. Some teach Bible schools and some treat lepers. However, no matter what they do, they are not doing it in order to fulfill any social obligation or to enhance the image of any church. Christians do what they do for the love of Christ and for the love of the people Christ died to save. It is not good for people who do not know Christ to think that church membership is a substitute for knowing Christ. It is not good for people to believe that they can outgrow God and simultaneously be part of his kingdom. People who believe that they are already part of the kingdom do not respond eagerly when Christians proclaim as Christ did, “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15 ESV)

If learning to be more Christ-like is important to you, visit the new blog “Love God and Others” launching today.

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2 thoughts on “Fewer People Claiming to be Christian Might be a Good Thing”

  1. Katherine, you are so right. this weekend we heard a story by a missionary from Open Doors. He told of “Sarah” (not her name) who returned to her country yesterday, by choice, to be sentenced to one year for distributing bibles. She had already suffered through a public beating where 11 people gave their life to Jesus because she did not deny her Lord. She had spent time in prison just after being charged and was beaten some more and raped. So she knows what she faces but believes that if she shows her faith to be weak and flees, her witness for Christ will suffer. We North Americans are weak in our faith. At the first sign of opposition we cave and decide not to identify ourselves with Christ. But you are right. These are the chaff that Christ talks about. With other Christians, especially those persecuted for their faith, praying for persecution to come to us so we will grow stronger, we can be assured that things are going to get worse for Christians, not better … Praise God.

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    1. Sarah is a beautiful example of a person who truly knows Christ and values that relationship above all else. Thank you for sharing that story. It truly is sad when we meet people who claim Christ’s name without knowing him at all. I pray to have a testimony like Sarah’s, although I must confess I am in complete awe at those who endure such suffering. I certainly do pray that we in the US be spared such a level of persecution, but the longer I live, the more I believe it will come to us, too. When it happens, “church membership” will have no value.

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