7 Reasons Not to Freak-out About Decline of US Christianity

On Sept. 13, Pew Research Center released four hypothetical scenarios that model what the religious landscape of the United States might look like if current demographic trends continue. The four models projected that the U.S. population who identify as Christian would decrease from 64 percent in 2020 to between 35-54 in 2070.

Though Pew’s models aren’t predictions of the future, the scenarios they present would continue the last 30 years of accelerating decline of self-identified Christians, and the increased self-identification of “nones” — people who don’t identify with any religion in particular. A reversal of these trends is certainly not impossible, but Stephanie Kramer, a senior researcher with Pew, told Christianity Today that it’s unlikely.

“We’ve never seen it, and we don’t have the data to model a religious reversal,” Kramer told CT.

Sojourners asked faith writers, theologians, and activists to reflect on the scenarios Pew presented. The responders offered brief reflections by email on how Christians today might respond to the trends, and what Christianity in 2070 ought to look like, whether in the majority or minority. Largely, respondents rebuked the idea that Pew’s scenarios should prompt U.S. Christians to freak-out.

“God cares more about the wholeness of all people rather than the power of one group,” Danté Stewart told Sojourners. “We should as well.”

The responders suggested that Christians who have been marginalized by white Christianity can teach the church how to live creatively without the power and privilege that come with majority status. They also challenged Christians to consider whether majority status is worth pursuing and how changing U.S. Christianity’s relationship to power might be cause for hope, not alarm.

These responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Vincent Lloyd, director of Africana studies at Villanova University

“Since Constantine, Christians in Europe and North America have been misled by the privilege and comfort that comes with occupying a position of power. In the minority, under duress, Christians will find it easier to access the truth of the faith: commitment to new life and to a new world.

In 2070, Christianity will continue to shape our national culture and its grammar. Regardless of what individuals profess to believe or fill out on a survey, Christian concepts, practices, and ways of seeing and feeling, shape who we all are — for better and for worse. Christians have a crucial role in making explicit the ethical and political implications of our Christian-influenced culture: how it orients individuals toward justice, how it challenges the wisdom of the world, and how it calls for conversion to a faithfulness aimed at the good, the true, and the beautiful. Black Christians have long had the experience of living faithfully as a minority, and all Christians anticipating a future as a minority should turn to the lessons they have gifted the Church.”

Traci C. West, professor of Christian ethics and African American Studies at Drew University Theological School

“This is an ethical issue of the use of power in community life, not the number of Christians. Whether in the majority or minority, can white American Christianity ever evolve beyond a perverse delight in humiliating and traumatizing vulnerable community members — like relentlessly targeting brown migrant families, transgender children, pregnant persons, and others — to help maintain its fiction of superiority? Might the prospect of such a 2070 reality inspire those of us who are Black and brown Christian believers in gospel liberation of the oppressed to build even stronger compassionate and just solidarities that reject fear, bigotry, and violence across racial and religious differences?”

Rev. Letiah Fraser, pastor with the Church of the Nazarene and organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign

“This is not a statistic to fear; it is to be expected. Christianity in the U.S. has for far too long been steeped in, if not birthed out of, white supremacy and far too concerned with colluding with political parties in an effort to maintain control using manipulation tactics. It does not surprise me that people are walking away from a Christianity that has been more oppressive than liberating, especially to those on the margins of society.

However, while it is true that people want less to do with institutionalized Christianity, many still have, and want to maintain, a deep connection to God and to others who care about spiritual things. This does not bring me to despair because the early followers of Jesus were a minority religion. They were not perfect by any means, but they strived to create beloved communities around them in a political and religious atmosphere that did not favor followers of the way. Yet, it was said of them, they were people who turned the world upside. I wonder if becoming a minority religion will refocus our priorities on loving God and neighbor, care for the poor, and justice for those being oppressed.”

Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) and organizer with Christians Against Christian Nationalism

“The Christian calling to love God and love our neighbors endures, regardless of our demographics. Christianity began and spread as a minority religion for centuries. One important difference from our beginnings, and most of our history as Christians, is that 21st century people in the U.S. — of all religions and none — have legally-protected religious freedom. We should celebrate the freedom to act on our religious beliefs without unnecessary government interference, as well as the freedom to change religions.

We should prayerfully discern why more people are moving away from U.S. Christianity. Sadly, I believe that the ideology of Christian nationalism expressed in some churches is contributing to the decline. Too many Christians are looking to and relying on government support for religion in ways that are harming our independence and integrity. Amid these challenges, our Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign remains committed to faithful action and the gospel of love.”

Danté Stewart, author of Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle

“First and foremost, we should grieve the reality that Christianity in this country is something people want to disassociate with. If the center of your faith is social, religious, and cultural power, then you will respond to these models in anger, fear, and resentment. If you believe your faith is neither here nor there, then possibly you will not care whether you become the minority or not. If the heart of your faith is remaining open to the world and the possibility that faith is about curiosity and sharing sacred presence and stories, then these models may not be a shock but another chapter in this long faith story of Christianity in the U.S.

Prayerfully, by 2070 I will be much older then and much wiser. As an elderly person in the faith, I hope my advice will be what I found as a young man: Faith is not a weapon to be used, but a world to be explored. Christians, be sure to be on the side of those who want more people free and not on the side of those who want to take away that freedom. If we can, then faith in public will be seen as a public good rather than a public vice.”

Kevin Nye, author of Grace Can Lead Us Home: A Christian Call to End Homelessness

“It’s become increasingly obvious and public the ways Christianity in the U.S. has caused harm and aligned itself with those continuing to do so without remorse. It’s clear that there are significant aspects of U.S. Christendom that need to die. As a Christian, I believe in Resurrection — old things have to pass so that new things can emerge.

I’m also encouraged by how many parables of Jesus describe the Gospel as something small that grows and permeates organically, like a mustard seed in a garden, or a bit of yeast in dough. In that sense, the decline of the Church in America is, for me, a sign of hope rather than something to fear.”

Marlena Graves, author of The Way Up Is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself

“My first thought is, ‘Don’t panic.’ Closely following Jesus seldom wins popularity contests; it can get you crucified given that it upends hierarchies. ‘Many of the last shall be first.’ Originally, Christians were the minority in the oppressive Roman Empire. Those who want to follow Jesus are to be servants, not masters. Our sustenance is to do the will of God whom we serve: loving God, neighbors, and enemies in practical ways, not in our imaginaries.

Secondly, are documented and undocumented Latines, and the Black Church considered? Aren’t the disaffiliated primarily found among white evangelicals/Mainline/Roman Catholics? Isn’t Christianity steady, even on the rise, in the majority world? Thankfully, the Kingdom of God is not dependent on what happens in the U.S.”

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