A new Pew Research Center study says the number of people identifying as “Christian” in America is declining. Nearly 20% of American adults who were raised as Christians no longer identify as one, and nearly 25% describe themselves as agnostic, atheistic, or of “no preference.” This decline is against a backdrop of the fastest growth of the worldwide church in history, so how can this be?
The American church is actually a product of the 313 Edict of Milan, when Roman Emperor Constantine decriminalized Christianity, and the persecuted house church emerged from the shadows. This newly legitimized church began to build extravagantly, professionalize its clergy, and exchange favors with governments, but today these are the churches – mostly of Europe and North America – that are declining.
At the same time, the fast growing world church – mostly of Asia, Africa, and South America – is rising from the soil of poverty and persecution, and without government favor. It is pre-Constantinian, and dependent upon the Holy Spirit for its daily life. The declining church is largely institutional, while the growing church is largely organic. For many in America, being Christian means as little as checking a box on a survey, but for marginalized world Christians, it means obediently following Jesus.
Obedience is what Jesus demands, and he always prefers a small band of true followers over an uncommitted crowd. In John 6 he “tightens the clamps” with some hard teachings, and many begin to complain. He doesn’t back down and says, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life,” and with that, many of the crowd turn back and no longer follow him.
Then he turns to his disciples and asks, “Do you also want to leave?” Peter answers, “Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life.”
Even as Christianity declines in America, many are finding Peter’s words to be true: “You have the words of real life, eternal life.” It is a difficult day for the institutional church, but the organic church is thriving, and is rapidly gaining ground in America as it overflows onto our shores. And for those who are checking “no preference” in some religious survey, the greatest discovery is yet to be made - that regardless of the crowd’s opinion, Jesus remains the source for both real life and eternal life.