For centuries, Christianity has been a dominant and influential force in the West. But since the late 2oth century, the church has seen a steady decline in membership and attendance, and congregations are disbanding at a record pace.
What is driving this decline in Christianity? And what, if anything, should Christians be doing about it?
Christianity is declining for the same reason that it spread so far and wide: because of a change in cultural influences. The details of the current decline are varied and complex, but Christians should not panic over the current trends.
By the Numbers
A 2019 Pew Research survey determined that 65% of Americans self-identify as Christians, which is a 12% decrease over a span of a decade. Similarly, from 2009 to 2019, the same survey found that the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation (including self-identified atheists and agnostics) rose from 17% to 26%.
The decline is observed across different demographic spectra, with numbers trending downward regardless of the respondents’ political affiliation or level of education. Though these factors correlate to different degrees of decline, generational differences stood out as the most significant area of contrast.
Decline is evident across all generations, but the overall numbers help to tell the larger story. The millennial generation (born between about 1980 to 2000) is the first generation in US history in which a minority of people (49%) identify as Christians.
The numbers trend upward with each preceding generation, with a whopping 84% of the Silent Generation (born between 1925 and 1945) identifying as Christians.
The national trend can be explained easily enough by generational replacement (members of the oldest generation are dying at a higher rate and thus represent a diminishing percentage of the overall population). But what is causing the decline—particularly in younger generations—in the first place?
A Lot of Finger-Pointing
Evangelicals who are alarmed at Western Society’s trend away from Christianity are quick to blame any number of factors, including:
- Entertainment that is increasingly hostile to Christianity
- Sports and Recreational activities encroaching on Sunday mornings
- Increasing rates of divorce and single-parent homes
- Increasing removal of religious expression (prayers and symbols) from public space
Each of these is a real, measurable trend that can easily be observed in western society. But are they causes of Christianity’s decline, or are they results of decline?
If we look at decline as a slope, the answer is that any one of these trends can be seen as both cause and effect. But none of these indicators helps us to get to the root cause of Christianity’s decline.
Is the Church the Problem?
Christians of deeply divergent perspectives are quick to point to adversaries within church ranks when seeking a causal agent for church decline.
Theologically orthodox churches point a finger at liberal Christians, citing a diluted message as the cause for decline. Similarly, progressive Mainline Christians claim that the rigid traditional teaching of Evangelicals does not appeal to the more liberal-minded people of the 21st century.
Which one is right? In a manner of speaking, both are.
The Real Decline
Instead of asking “Why has Christianity declined?” we might be better served by asking “Has Christianity declined?” If we are defining Christianity honestly, we might see that it really hasn’t declined like we think it has.
Christendom, on the other hand, has undoubtedly fallen out of favor in the West.
If you read our previous piece on the spread and acceptance of Christianity, then you are familiar with the term “Christendom,” which we define as the social/political/cultural dominance of Christian influence. Christendom first emerged in the fourth century when the Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity, and it continued to remain the prevailing force in the West for centuries.
It wasn’t until the Age of Enlightenment began in the 17th century that a competing worldview posed a serious threat to the influence of Christendom. Concurrent with the Enlightenment came a wave of scientific discovery and breakthroughs. The two together gave rise to Naturalism, which seeks to understand our world indented of, and without any appeal to, divine influence.
Still, the cultural influence of Christendom had persisted for over a millennium and would not go away quickly. But over the next several centuries, naturalist and deist thinking would make inroads into education, scientific development, and eventually theology, shedding light on what had before been a largely obscure truth.
Christianity versus Christendom
Although Western society had been entrenched in Christian influence for centuries, this is not the same as being a society full of Christians. History shows us that much of what the church embraced and endorsed during the era of Christendom was far removed from the Christianity of the early church.
Inquisitions, crusades, witch trials, and the embrace of slavery are some of the most obvious signs of this departure from Biblical Christianity. It is only in hindsight that we are able to recognize that perhaps the number of Bible-professing Christians throughout much of history was far less than we had initially believed.
The decline that we witness today in the West is a decline of Christendom (nominal Christian influence). And though congregations are fewer and smaller than they had been in the past, they consist of far fewer nominal Christians than at any point prior to Emperor Constantine
A Lesson from Ancient Churches
As Christians, we should not be alarmed—or even saddened—by the trend happening around us. From its earliest days, the church has always been intended to be countercultural:
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”John 18:36
The church’s season of cultural influence and dominance led to complacency and compromise. Being forced out of cultural dominance has, in some ways, helped to reinvigorate the church.
Jesus’ letters to seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 show how this pattern has affected the ancient church and how it continues to affect the church as history unfolds:
- Ephesus became institutionalized and grew into a loveless and legalistic entity.
- Smyrna remained faithful against the grain of a hostile culture.
- Pergamum stood firm in the face of danger but allowed tolerance of false doctrine to erode its foundation.
- Thyatira showed signs of doing good but ultimately brought judgment on itself by promoting corrupt teachings.
- Sardis was outwardly alive, but it was only going through the motions and was inwardly dead.
- Philadelphia emerged from the darkness to become a true and faithful congregation.
- Laodicea was so enamored by its own prosperity and success that it became an inward-facing self-interested church worthy of being spit out by Jesus.
Notice the progression? We see the church growing in faith under fire. We see how compromise leads to falsehood and ultimately death. And we see how worldly success leads to pride and spiritual blindness.
While Christendom declines in the West, the remaining faithful grow stronger. And while persecution mounts in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, the church in those places is strengthened.
Cultural influence will come and go. But God’s church will always endure.