Are We Losing Our Religion?
Almost everyone in the world of American religion has spent the last couple of weeks thinking through what Gallup just revealed: that, for the first time since they’ve been surveying the topic, less than half the country belongs to a church of any kind. My first thought was grief. But what came after that was a strange sort of almost survivor’s guilt.
When I was fifteen years old, I considered suicide—and it was because I didn’t want to lose my religion. As I’ve written about elsewhere, I went through a prolonged spiritual crisis then because of what I was seeing all around me in Bible Belt Christianity. Not only were the televangelist scandals all over the news, but also I knew that this wasn’t the half of it.
Just as those in political journalism have long known how to interpret “Sen. Smith has decided to spend more time with his family,” I knew how to interpret “The Lord has called Brother Jones from the pastorate into itinerant evangelism.” I knew of “Christian people” who beat their children for listening to “secular music.” I knew of “Christian people” who denounced the vulgarity in the culture but seethed with racism. I heard prediction after prediction after prediction tying current events to Bible prophecy that was all “just about to happen.”
But nobody ever said, “Remember when I said ‘Gog and Magog’ of the Bible is the Soviet Union? I was wrong about that” or “Mikhail Gorbachev, I told you was probably the antichrist, but, my bad” or “Now that I also am using these supermarket scanners, maybe they’re not the Mark of the Beast after all.” These folks just moved on with the next confident assertions, as though the last never happened at all.
And this was even more the case with the politics. Even as a teenager, I could see that the “voting guides” that showed up in Bible Belt America were kind of like the horoscopes one could find in the newspaper. The horoscope could say, “Today you will find a surprising new opportunity,” and a certain sort of credulous person would be amazed at how this just happened to be true—without ever thinking about the fact that this is true of virtually every human being at virtually every moment, if one just pays attention to it. Likewise, the voter guides lined out the “Christian” view from the “anti-Christian view” on a list of issues that just happened to line up with the favored party’s platform that year. Somehow the Bible suddenly gave us a “Christian view” on a balanced budget amendment or a line-item veto, things that, like the European common market as a sign of the last days, were never noticed in the text until the favored candidates started emphasizing such things.
And along with all that came apocalyptic warnings that if these candidates weren’t elected, or these policies weren’t enacted, we would “lose our entire culture.” But when those candidates lost, no one headed for the bunkers. The culture didn’t fall—at least not any more than it had before. I started to wonder whether religion itself—or at least the kind of Christianity that showed up in the slogans all around me—might really be about something else: southern culture or politics. If so, I thought, that would mean that Jesus is not the Way, the Truth, and the Life, but a means to an end. And that would mean that the gospel is not “You must be born again,” but “You must be one of us.”
All that was terrifying to me because I really believed that Jesus was the Son of the Living God. I really believed that Jesus loved me…for the Bible told me so. And if the gospel I had been given was really just about finding ways to get voters to back party bosses or to fund prostitutes and cocaine for some preachers on TV, then that would mean more than just an adolescent cynical awakening. It would mean that the universe is a random, meaningless void—red in tooth and claw. It would mean that the preacher who beat his daughter for dancing wasn’t an aberration but was instead the way the cosmos is, right down to the core. And that was a horrible thought.
Obviously—since this isn’t a horoscope coming to you from beyond the grave—I came through this teenager crisis. And obviously—since I’m an evangelical Christian—I came through it with my faith not just intact but deepened. That’s due, ultimately of course, to the grace of God. But, in terms of secondary causes, it’s due to the fact that I found a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianityon a bookstore shelf and, having read to the point of memorization The Chronicles of Narnia as a child, I recognized his name.
And it’s due to the fact that listening to Christian music led me to a Christian bookstore where I found, amidst all the kitsch, a copy of Christianity Todaymagazine, where I found columns by Philip Yancey and J.I. Packer and John Stott and Chuck Colson. These people seemed to take the reader seriously as someone who could think, and they seemed to be filled, not with anger and outrage and manipulation, but with what I recognized as the fruit of the Spirit—peace, joy, kindness, gentleness, self-control, etc. There seemed to be something there that bore witness to a Jesus who was not a means to an end but who was the Alpha and Omega of everything.
But my fifteen year-old self haunts me. I know that the reason I even went looking for C.S. Lewis and the others is because I had been taught the Bible—in a good, loving church. I had seen genuine love and community and authenticity there, week by week in Sunday School and Training Union and worship services and Vacation Bible Schools—to know that it could exist, and what it would look like when I found it. But I wonder what would have happened to fifteen year-old Russell Moore had I been born in 2001 instead of 1971? Would the things I saw have even prompted a crisis at all? Or would I just have walked away altogether? Would I have ended up the sort of atheist or agnostic or “deconstructing ex-vangelical” that I find myself counseling almost every day now? Who can know—and I suppose I should just conclude that, with apologies to Paul Simon, I was Born Again at the Right Time.
But I think about this literally every day of my life. And maybe more this week than ever.
Back to Gallup. The number of Americans now affiliated with a church is just 47 percent. What’s significant is not just the low number, but the speed of the plummet —from 68 percent of Americans twenty years ago to 47 percent now. And the numbers are even worse than they appear. Generation X is less affiliated than Baby Boomers and Millennials less than Gen-X and Generation Z looking to be even less affiliated than them all.
In recent years, even some who were less apocalyptic about the prospects of evangelical Christianity—because of growth in the Global South or because of the cyclical nature of revivals and awakenings—have grown more foreboding about the prospects of evangelical Christianity in the twenty-first century. Referring to the “Nones,” those claiming “no religious affiliation,” sociologist Philip Jenkins contends: “The future of the USA is None.”
Indeed, the most reliable studies available show us that as little as 8 percent of white Millennials identify as evangelicals, as compared to 26 percent of senior adults. With Generation Z, the numbers are even more jarring—with 34 percent identifying as religiously unaffiliated, and that number is growing.
What’s more, the “culture wars” narrative of this secularization is increasingly demonstrated to be false—at least in the way presented by and to American evangelicals over the past fifty years. Some of the disaffiliation, to be sure, is due to liberalizing cultural norms, decreasing fertility, and increasing mobility. But the evidence is mounting that a significant amount of secularization is accelerated and driven not by the “secular culture,” but by evangelicalism itself.
Many of us have observed, anecdotally, a hemorrhaging of younger evangelicals from churches and institutions in recent years. What seems different about this quiet exodus is that the departures are heightened not among the peripheries of the church—those “nominal” or “cultural” Christians who grow up to rebel against their parents’ beliefs—but instead among those who are the most committed to what were previously thought to be the hardestaspects of Christian religion in modernity: belief in “the supernatural,” the rigorous demands of discipleship, and a longing for community and accountability in a multigenerational church with ancient roots and transcendent authority.
Where a “de-churched” (to use an anachronistic term) “ex-vangelical” (to use another) in the early 1920s was likely to have walked away due to the fact that she found the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection to be outdated and superstitious or because he found moral libertinism to be more attractive than the “outmoded” strict moral code of his past or because she wanted to escape the stifling bonds of a home church for an autonomous individualism, now we see a markedly different—and jarring—model of a disillusioned evangelical. We now see young evangelicals walking away from evangelicalism not because they do not believe what the church teaches, but because they believe the church itself does not believe what the church teaches. The presenting issue in this secularization is not scientism and hedonism but disillusionment and cynicism.
Many have pointed to compelling data—from Robert Putnam and David Campbell and countless other sociologists, political scientists, and demographers—showing that the politicization of American religion is a key driver of people away from religious affiliation. Some would point to the fact that most of those leaving would identify politically as somewhere from moderate to progressive, to suggest that such people are better off outside the church in the first place. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that such is true, which comes first here—the demand to line up politically in order to follow Jesus or the decision to reject the politics of those making such demands? Moreover, it seems to me that the controversy is not actually even over the specific political planks or ideas or personalities as the fact that many have come to believe that the religion itself is a vehicle for the politics and the cultural grievances—and not the other way around.
And it’s not difficult to see why. I watched twenty years ago as people suggested that those waving away a president’s sexual behavior as irrelevant to his public office were the result of liberal forms of Baptist theology, and then lived long enough to watch the same people suggest that those who did not wave away such behavior from another president might not be “real Christians.” People can change their minds, of course. I certainly have done so on many things. But—as with the prophecy charts a generation ago—there is no talk of minds changing, just certainties in one direction and then certainties in the opposite direction, with the only difference being the tribal affiliations of the leaders under discussion.
The trends in secularization mean that people do not need the church in order to see themselves as Americans or as good people or even as “spiritual.” And they certainly do not need the church in order to carry out their political affiliations—even when those political affiliations are those preferred by the church. If evangelicalism is politics, people can get their politics somewhere else—and fight and fornicate and get drunk too, if they want. A religion that calls people away from Western modernity will have to say, with credibility, “Take up your cross and follow me,” not “Come with us, and we’ll own the libs.” One can do the latter on YouTube and one needn’t even give up a Sunday morning.
Almost every survey of disaffiliating people has also emphasized the scandals within the church—most notably the sexual abuse cover-ups and predatory behavior. This is about more than just the standard trope of “Don’t judge the church by the hypocrites in it.” Every generation has had idealism shattered by scandal within the church. That’s why J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his own disillusioned son to encourage him not to give up on the church, despite hypocrisies, as “the virtue of loyalty” is one that “only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it.” This is far more than just that.
We might reassure ourselves when we see the proliferating “Nones” among our youth that the reason they are leaving is because they want to run their own lives and pursue the sexual hedonism the church (rightly) forbids. Some of that is no doubt the case. But if one believes the Bible, one knows that wanting to run one’s own life is not a new development with modernity. And one need only know a little bit of high school biology to know that the desire for sexual hedonism didn’t start in the Obama Administration. First-century Athens, Greece, was just as intellectually averse to Christianity as is twenty-first century Athens, Georgia—and far more sexually “liberated” too. And the gospel went forth and the churches grew.
The problem now is not that people think the church’s way of life is too demanding, too morally rigorous, but that they have come to think the church doesn’t believe its own moral teachings. The problem is not that they reject the idea that God could send anyone to hell but that, when they see the church covering up predatory behavior in its institutions, they have evidence that the church believes God would not send “our kind of people” to hell. If people reject the church because they reject Jesus and the gospel, we should be saddened but not surprised.
But what happens when people reject the church because they think we reject Jesus and the gospel? If people leave the church because they want to gratify the flesh with abandon, such has always been the case, but what happens when people leave because they believe the church exists to gratify the flesh—whether in orgies of sex or orgies of anger or orgies of materialism? That’s a far different problem. And what if people don’t leave the church because they disapprove of Jesus, but because they’ve read the Bible and have come to the conclusion that the church itself would disapprove of Jesus? That’s a crisis.
Will the church die? No. The church moves out into the future not on the strength of its culture or its institutions but because of the promise of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi. And—however buffered the modern self might be from the so-called supernatural—the tomb is, in fact, empty. The apostles were telling the truth. The stories are true. And that means Jesus is alive—and seated in heaven until the kingdom of God has come on earth as it is in heaven.
That truth, though, doesn’t mean that the institutions as they are will continue to exist. Any church can lose its lampstand—and any church “culture” can lose its credibility and die. The church will be reborn in every generation, but, as the prophet Jeremiah warned Jerusalem, “Don’t be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the Lord’s temple is here…Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, ‘we are safe!’—only to go right back to all those evils again?” (Jer. 7:4, 8-10 NLT).
The church will survive—even here in America—but, along the way, a lot of fifteen year-olds will be hurt. A lot of them will conclude that the gospel is just one more aspect of political theater or outrage culture or institutional self-perpetuation or worse. They will be wrong, of course, but, as Jesus put it, “woe to the person through whom the stumbling block comes” (Matt. 18:7 NASB).
We are losing a generation—not because they are secularists, but because they believe we are. What this demands is not a rebranding, but a repentance—meaning, as the Bible does, a turnaround. Stranger things have happened, and that’s good, because we will need it. We need to be the people of Christ and him crucified, the people of a Word that stands above all earthly powers and, no thanks to them, abides.
Somewhere, there’s at least one fifteen year-old who needs to see if we’re such a people. Maybe, even, his life depends on it.
This article originally appeared in this week’s Moore to the Point email newsletter. To get this weekly email in your inbox, become a subscriber (for free).