The Public Religion Research Institute just released an invaluable new resource to help church leaders see what’s been happening across the American religious landscape. Their American Values Atlas is an up-to-date, representative dataset drawn from over 100,000 interviews conducted in 2016.
The breadth of the data allows church leaders to target the responses of specific states and even metro areas according to the questions used in the survey. These responses can be broken down even further into demographics. For example, with a few clicks, I learned that from 2013 to 2016 those who identified as Baptist in the Dallas metro area dropped from 24% to 21%.
While the Atlas itself is a remarkable resource that’s worth a deep dive, just a glance at the executive summary reveals trends that every church leader should recognize and consider. This data raises questions that will take patient prayer and thoughtfulness to answer.
The Decline of White American Christians
For example, responders who identify as white and Christian account for 43% of the population—that number was over 80% as recently as 1976. Not only that, but just since 2006, white evangelicals, mainline Christians, and Catholics have seen their numbers drop by five or more percentage points each. And white Christians are getting older—the median age for white evangelicals and Catholics has risen from 45 (in 1976) to 55 today. Only just over 10% of all white Christians are under 30 years old.
This number shows the sobering growth of secularism in our present culture and the church’s failures—despite its sometimes sycophantic desire to be ‘seeker sensitive’ or ‘relevant’—to resonate with the current generation of white Americans. We must ask ourselves what is it that we are missing here.
A Rise in Diversity
While the decline of white American Christians is concerning, it does mean that ethnic diversity is on the rise in the church—at least in some churches. While mainline churches—Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, and others—still hover at over 80% white, Baptists, Pentecostals, and non-denominational churches have seen their non-white populations reach almost 50%.
Sunday morning may still be the most segregated moment in the American week, but the shifting religious demographics call church leaders to recognize the possibility for increased diversity within the church. Perhaps one reason that the church has failed to resonate with white Americans is its dissonance with an increasingly diverse population outside the church. A homogenous church won’t bear authentic witness to the world that people live in every other day of the week. Pastors and other leaders should be asking themselves how they can continue to open their doors wider to all.
In one of the most stark illustrations, we see that those who identified as ‘unaffiliated’ with any particular religion remained steadily around 7% of the population from 1976 until 1990. Since that time though, the line moves steadily upward, jumping to 24% by 2016. The vast majority of this demographic is not atheist or agnostic, but rather they identify simply as a ‘secular person.’ Among those 18-29 years old, the percentage of ‘unaffiliated’ persons is closing in on 40%.
We could unpack this data for some time, and undoubtedly smarter minds are already at work on the causes and implications. But we have to consider what cultural conditions so uniquely converged in this specific moment in time (the early 1990’s) that pushed so many people away from identifying themselves with any religious institution? And did these conditions instill new ideas so deeply as to lead the generation who grew up in the midst of it to distance itself from religious institutions as if by some default instinct?
These demographics shouldn’t terrify us. The kingdom of God isn’t threatened by survey data and the church has endured a myriad of upheavals, both political and cultural, throughout her history. But these numbers should challenge us. They should challenge us not only to consider the answers that we have been giving to the world around us—they should make us wonder whether we are even seeking to answer the questions those around us are asking.
Over the coming months, we will try to showcase people and organizations who are engaging wisely with these issues. We hope that you will join in the conversation.