October 28, 2020

The ARIS Study: Christianity On The Decline In America

UPDATE: Welcome to all of you stopping by from the Drudge Report and Real Clear Politics. Glad to have you.

The American Religious Identification Survey published its results this week, and if you go to the USA Today graphic and punch in Catholics, Other Christians and Non-Religious, you will get the picture.

(Touchstone Magazine has a good summary piece as well, with excellent summary analysis. Be sure and read it.)

Hispanics are the only thing floating in a sinking American Catholicism. Catholicism in the northeast is in rapid decline. Stunning, really.

Protestants are in a free fall. Evangelicals are moving to non-denominational megachurches and away from mainlines and traditional evangelicalism. Non-denominational, highly Charismatic flavored evangelicalism is on the way to domination, and you heard it here first, megachurch evangelicalism is a house of cards. If those in the pews of the megachurches think think grandchildren will be there as adults, I have a bridge I’d like to sell cheap.

While out and out atheists are still a sliver of the population, those calling themselves non-religious are growing rapidly. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet in that category. America remains a nation that says it is over 70% Christian, but Christianity as a percentage of the population is shrinking in every category except for Hispanics.

Baptists are coasting into decline, with growth far behind the total population. Generational horizons- the end of churches because no younger generation exists- are everywhere in the mainlines.

This is the stage for the coming evangelical collapse. It is the dawning of an America where Christianity is generic or declining, for the most part. It is the stage where serious Churches and theologically/culturally conservative churches have a first century style mission field. This is the stage where many of us will watch our children and grandchildren identify a generic Christianity when they are young, but never join a church and eventually drop into the ranks of the non-religious.

This is the stage for a cultural disengagement from the Christian memory of America. It is the dawning of a new American religious landscape. Give our culture 25 years. How much faster will this happen? How much deeper will it go?

If you are an evangelical and you aren’t enthusiastically supporting innovative, cross cultural, missional church planting, you might want to go pre-plan the funeral. The future isn’t the megachurch. The future is ACTS 29.

Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans: You’re at the crossroads. I’d get serious.

Liberal mainlines: Wake up and find the lifeboats.

Your thoughts?


  1. DJ Clayworth says

    “If those in the pews of the megachurches think their grandchildren will be there as adults, I have a bridge I’d like to sell cheap.”

    Sure I know that’s just your opinion, but why is it even an issue? Maybe their grandchildren will go on to serve God in an entirely different way? In the meantime the megachurches are upholding the idea that God is more important than petty denominational divisions, and doing a darn good job. Church forms are transient, and God is fine with that.

  2. I read today – sorry but don’t remember where – an article calling atheists the most under-recognized minority in America.

    There are approximately as many atheists as Hispanics and they have not yet begun to make the changes they are capable of driving.

    Here in Arkansas, for example, you can’t be an atheist and hold state office, per the constitution. Imagine if that were changed to say you can’t be an evangelical Christian?

    Part of the issue with modern Christianity has been its eagerness to use the tyranny of the majority to advance its goals.

  3. Anna

    Perhaps our communication problem stems from an improper connection between our relationship with the physical world our personal relationship with each other. As I said bfore, and I still believe, a scientist must be ever skeptical. In your example, of course a scientist will trust the readings of his instruments, until he may notice an anomoly, at which point he will immediately seek to find a reason for the apparent “error”. A good recent example was the discovery that the instruments reporting the shrinking of the Artic ice area had overstated the shinkage by thoudands of square miles. Investigation showed this to be due to the instruments drifting on the sea ice. I think even interpersonal relationships should be examined before major or irrevocable decisions are made A current case in point are those who invested and lost $50 billion in Madoff’s ponzi scheme solely on the basis of “trust”.

  4. America is ready to return to the modern world. As the current economic crisis is teaching us, we lived in a bubble screened from reality until the bills came due and the bubble burst. What do you think Americans will say about any organization that spouts outdated theories? They won’t be attracted to them. In addition, Evangelicalism espoused universal acceptance and communalism. It didn’t live up to that PR and the modern mega churches could pay the price for that mis-management. While America will see an increase in atheism, it does not extinguish belief in Christianity’s founder….that’s in the eternal realm if understood as such. I think we may see the spiritually inclined stick to the spiritual and not the religeous. There’s plenty of room for believers in Christ in that world, they just need to hold that belief more tenderly and be a bit more cautious about using it as a tool to castigate.

  5. AT Chaffee:

    Thanks for mentioning annihilationism, it is definitely a concept I have heard of and would be more sympathetic to (were I a believer).

    The nature v. nurture debate seems to be grounded on different footing depending on whether you believe in sin or not. I would agree that humans are both born with(nature) and learn(nurture) certain tendencies and behaviors that at some early point in life can manifest themselves as what Christians would call “sin”. Humans have created ethics in order to promote a safer and more complex society. We shun behavior that puts us at risk or destroys trust because it harms our livelihood. We love each other because we recognize our common struggle and our biological connection.

    It is true that atheists/agnostics/secular humanists are a massively underrepresented and maligned minority. Very, every few would consider themselves nihilists or anarchists. We simply derive our ethics from our own rational response to the world around us, rather than rely 100% on the words of dead men who knew some things about the world but clearly not everything. Life evolves, and thus so does the human condition and our relationship to each other.


    I know I personally would not shun the emergence of a new folk religion so long as those persons did not try to change public policy for everyone to conform with their beliefs. If you believe in the rule of law and in rationalism, then you know that trying to suppress religion through any means other than the marketplace of ideas is both wrong and futile.

  6. Bob

    I find it hard to believe that you accept a carefully screened collection of anecdotal evidence compiled by a business journalist as a reason to defend the claim that paranormal forces and energy actually exist. As a long time subscriber to the “Skeptical Inquirer”, I have watched the exposure of all manner of such claims as being misinterpretations or, in sadly, outright fraud. As a matter of fact, Randi, the magician, has a standing offer of $1 million to anyone who, under agreed upon controlled conditions, can demonstrate ANY form of paranormality.The offer has been on the table for many years and Randi still has his money. Incidentally, Randi was the guy that demonstrated that Uri Geller’s spoon bending was a slight of hand trick. Geller later sued Randi for defamation of character, lost in court, and had to pay Randi’s legal costs. Schricker’s work is little more than a modern up date on Charles Fort’s work. He, also, was a former reporter with absolutely no technical training and yet his wild claims inspired writers like Charles Berlitz, Erich von Daniken, Ivan Sanderson and, for all I know, Michael Schmicker. I am afraid Bob, that you and I are perhaps irrevocably apart on the subject of the paranormal. I find no evidence to suggest we must resort to a supernatural being to explain our natural world. But I continue to try to disabuse you of the idea that any serious scientist would say that we now know (almost) everything. The search for the “Theory of Everything” is merely a search for a mathematical model that includes all of the fundamental forces in nature, including gravity. Even success in that endeavor (which the detection of the Higgs particle in the CERN collider is designed to do) will not result, I assure you , in the announcement that we now understand everything. By the way, your comment about the emergence of string theory as a possible transition from previous theories is not true. Aside from the fact that alternaives to string theory (branes, for one)are under study, string theory is just a deeper-level theory. Quantum particles still exixt in string theory, but they are not the ultimate foundations of reality, because they are in turn being produced by the vibrations of the strings themselves. Thus the old theory of quantum mechanics, if abandoned, would not have been wrong, just partially right.

  7. Rod Mullen says

    Hello Anna,

    You asked me what my vision was, and how I see the world. I hardly know what to say, it is such an enormous question. But I do have a few thoughts.

    It seems to me there is a new vision taking shape all around us. I could not begin to do it justice in so limited a space but, for me at least, the heart of this vision is the idea that life itself is a creative force, and we are anything but passive observers. That we create and control our own destiny is the empowering idea contained in all of the Enlightenment ideals. Where Christianity convinced us that we are hopelessly weak, we now see that we wield the most powerful force in the universe – life. Where Christianity said the world operates by miraculous forces that are beyond our comprehension, we now see that we can understand the very principles that drive nature. Where Christianity said we are the children of God, we now see that we have grown up. And where Christianity said that our true life starts from the moment of our death, we now see that it started at the moment of our birth. The storytelling tradition of primitive Christianity has exerted a powerful pull on humanity for a very long time, but surely it is time to put our childhood behind us and engage a life that we create for ourselves.

  8. Mark,

    I agree that we are having challenges communicating, and I was trying to just push your idea to the absurd ending. I agree that we need to know when to stop and trust our stuff, and our people. Thank you for the explanation about the Arctic ice. I had not heard that, but it makes sense.

    I also agree with you completely about being careful whom you trust.


    Thank you for replying. I will have to think about some of the things that you are saying. For myself, I must be one of the more primitive types, because I love stories, and even today, my favorite reading are stories. I’ve found some Christian writers that are very good parable writers, and lap their writings up. Walter Wangerin Jr is one of them, and I read “The Shack” also.

    I disagree that Christianity made people weak, though. Just look at some of the non-Christian religions and see. I’m thinking of the ones where the poor never have a chance to break out of their poverty. At least, we Christians are taught that there is difference in people. The serf and the lord of the manor came before the same priest, knelt and recieved communion. Granted, that is the ideal, and may not have happened as much as you and I would have liked.

    Yes, we can do a lot, but just because we can does that mean that we should? How do we decide those questions?

  9. “Planting churches”: No, please – no! (I’m not being sarcastic.)

    Acting more like Christ: Absolutely yes.

    I think one of the things that must go is the perceived “need” to evangelize. When people know you have other motives for something as simple as taking a walk or inviting you to dinner – in other words, when you suspect proseletyzing [sp??] is the real main course – why would they bother showing up?

    I’ve been around churches that have gotten obsessed with so-called “church planting” to the exclusion of living out the Gospel in the here and now. To me, it seems like a quintessentially American way to try push something on other people. Then, when we “plant” the churches, we can get all smug and self-satisfied about how we did that and *still* not bother to attend to the real needs of others, both in the church and not.

    As for the future looking like Mark Driscoll, I find that notion to be deeply troubling (like a number of other commenters here). God help us. The “traditional” churches (RC, Anglican, Orthodox, Lutheran) are likely to end up being the refuge of those who are seeking something real but don’t know quite what it is or where else they can go that allows them to just be (as opposed to being beaten over the head with a 20-lb. pulpit Bible).

    In a way, I can see some close parallels between the so-called “prosperity ‘Gospel'” and this church-“planting” movement, and I’m alarmed by that.

    If Driscoll and pals were really doing the job of building churches, I doubt we would so much as know their given names.

  10. Lance in TX says

    You stated:
    The “traditional” churches (RC, Anglican, Orthodox, Lutheran) are likely to end up being the refuge of those who are seeking something real but don’t know quite what it is or where else they can go that allows them to just be (as opposed to being beaten over the head with a 20-lb. pulpit Bible).

    Yes they will grow, but so will “non-traditional” (as you implied) Churches like the LDS Church. People are seeking Truth. We don’t “beat people over the head with a 20-lb. pulpit Bible” and we have the Truth that many people are searching for. Going back to the 1st & 2nd Century understanding of Jesus Christ answers MANY questions people have in the inconsistencies in many “Traditional” Churches.

  11. Rod:

    I see two very big holes in your “new vision.”

    First: none of us choses when, where, or in what socioeconomic status we are born into.

    Second: Physically, we ALL die eventually. Not only that, but we certainly haven’t cracked the code on whether or not we get sick. We may be able to cure the disease, but there’s no fix that guarantees we won’t get the disease. We live longer, but we still get old (perhaps at a slower rate; just compare people born in the 1st world and those born in abject poverty in the 3d.)

    As for comprehending the forces of nature, keep this in mind: every time we THINK we have found the smallest “particle” in an atomic structure, we seemingly find that there is something yet smaller.

    Religion and science are not mutually exclusive. Science is the search for the truth in our natural world. God has no “beef,” as it were, with that. Nor should religion. Aquinas would agree. So did Pope Urban VIII, who was elected to suceed Paul V. Galileo’s problem was he presented his hypothesis (which turned out to be partially incorrect, btw) as absolute fact.

  12. The Guy from Knoxville says

    I was checking out some baptist church websites around the Knoxville area today and came across a
    church in the south part of the city that had been a rather large and well known church body in years past. In the mid 1970s the church sanctuary burned and the current one was built to replace it and this new building probably seats 750+ with
    main floor, wrap-around balcony and mid size choir area. Long story short – I was looking at some of their recent newsletters from 2008 and 2009 and the average attendance(Sunday morning service) now
    stands at 60-65! I suppose that’s quite a lonely feeling in a 700 seat room – they’re hanging on with an aging congregation including the pastoral staff – late 60s-70s. Very few, if any, younger families in that small average attendance. It is a traditional baptist church and I believe it’s possible to grow in that settting but, it will be a difficult task as they will have to reach out to people that they’ve, most likely, been resistant to reaching out to.

    This particular church will be gone in 10 years or less if they don’t make some inroads into the transitioned community around them and attract some outside of that as well. I was shocked and saddened to see this church in that condition. After reading that today I’ve decided that I’m going to visit the pastor and get some “real time” perspective on what has happened and what he and the church might be considering to change the direction – if they’re considering anything. It should be a very eye opening, enlightening conversation.

    The Guy from Knoxville

  13. The Guy from Knoxville says

    Additional on regarding the south Knoxville church – Michael, I won’t be mentioning anything
    about the survey or your blog in my planned visit to the pastor of the church. Seems that this rubs baptist pastors the wrong way more often than not.

    I’m a concerned baptist as far as this visit goes. If you have some suggestions on some specific areas to address, it might be helpful in the visit.



  14. @ Lance in Texas – Please don’t take this wrong, but I was referring to “orthodox” (as in “orthodox in doctrine”) Christian churches, especially those that (IMO) aren’t so permeated with the kind of perfectionism that infects much of American Protestantism. (Evangelicalism in particular.)

    I was (I think!) also alluding to the way much of the American Protestant segment of the body of Christ has a tendency to run after every “new thing,” no matter how unbiblical. (“Strategic-level spiritual warfare,” the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” etc.)

    Do I believe that other religions will also attract people, especially if they’re non-legalistic? The answer is “yes,” though I also believe that many of us (me, too) seek comfort in structure, even in rules. (Again, I’ve no intention of dissing you or your faith… but it’s a bit outside of what we know and believe – historically – of/about orthodoxy.)

  15. Rod Mullen says

    MAJ Tony,

    Great response. I thought your words went straight to the heart of matters. We never chose this, and we will all eventually die. You can’t argue with that. What was I before I was born and what will I be after I die? (Your response had more nuance than this. Please pardon me for simplifing it to something I can get my thoughts around.)

    For me, these are cultural questions as much as existential ones. Everything about western civilization leads us to believe we are individual free agents playing out our lives in an impersonal universe. Religion was invented to soften that perception. Somehow we have to step outside of centuries of cultural conditioning. What is required at this point in human history is a reframing of the questions about life. I think we must move from belief in a dead universe to one that is literally alive, and begin to understand our role in that. We have to see ourselves as part of something larger and something timeless, and do that without all the storytelling.

    The central problem is this: If we continue to identify “me” as only the fraction of the universe inside our own skin then the questions of existence will never go away. We must see the whole as well as the parts. Personally, I don’t think life has a beginning and an ending, and I don’t think “we” do either.

    In any event, thank you for taking the time to respond. Discussions like this are a wonderful way for us all to deepen our understanding of each other.

  16. I know that I’ve joined this conversation a bit late, but I do question some of the way this ARIS survey is being read to say that Christianity is on the decline. In my view, the best reading of the religious situation isn’t how people self-identify. Rather, it is church attendance and polling results on specific religious beliefs (ex: do you belief in God, the Bible is true, Jesus rose from the dead, etc.). From the numbers I’ve seen most Americans, whether they identify themselves as religious or not are fairly non-dogmatic in their beliefs. Many people who identify themselves as religious aren’t really all that orthodox, knowledgeable, and can be relativistic. On the other hand, many if not even most people who identify themselves as non-religious aren’t hardcore atheists and are more likely to be “spiritual but not religious.”

    As for church attendance, some say it has been stable since the 1950s, some say it is on the decline. Some say about 20% of Americans attend a religious service regularly, some around 40%. See for example the following blog post on this:


    Granted, there is no perfect way of assessing the religious situation. But at best only 40% of people have attended a religious service on a regular (weekly or better) basis since the 1950s. This means that 60% of Americans are either nominally religious or non-religious.

    What this ARIS study may really show is that more people who would have identified themselves with a religious tradition, but were nominally religious in the sense that they rarely attend service, don’t practice their faith, and aren’t the most knowledgeable about it have recognized that they don’t in all honestly belong to said faith tradition and now consider just check “none” when asked about religious adherence.

    This may be in part to the experiences of the Bush years and the politicalization of religion. It may also be because the sexual values of non-religious Americans have changed vastly since the 1960s and no longer have much in common with religious people. For example, your average atheist, agnostic, and nominal Christian in say 1960 saw homosexuality as abnormal and immoral and frowned on divorce, pre-marital cohabitation, and out of wedlock births. The same isn’t true today at all. Non-religious America has changed greatly since the 1960s and has embraced the values of the sexual revolution in ways that marks them off considerably from religious America.

    In the end, however, I’m not sure if the ARIS study actually shows any real decline in Christianity or any meaningful change. The honest truth is that most Americans weren’t orthodox, committed Christians in the first place. What we may be seeing isn’t so much a huge falling off of Christianity (though some of that may be happening), but a recognition on the part of those who don’t ever attend a religious service and aren’t really religious of where their religious adherence lies. In short, the ARIS survey may show that what is really declining is nominal religious adherence.


  17. Mark,

    Let me recap the main points of our discussion:

    1) You claimed that there is “…not a shred of evidence that there is an afterlife…”, as if you were familiar with the subject.
    2) I am familiar with this subject, and pointed out that there was actually a massive amount of evidence for the existence of an afterlife as well as other spiritual phenomena; That this evidence was available at any major library (and has been for at least 100 years) for anyone interested to access.
    3) I further pointed out that, for emotional reasons I don’t pretend to comprehend, many scientists deny the existence of this evidence: or, if they are made aware of it they claim that it has been debunked – all this without ever examining the evidence themselves. I pointed you to a small compilation of this evidence in a popular book, as an easy way to look at some of it.
    4) You immediately claimed (without actually looking at it) that all of this evidence was debunked – thereby supporting my point #3 above (thanks). You are even willing to let a professional magician with only a high school education make this determination for you – somehow I don’t think you would cede the “Amazing Randi” this authority in your own field.

    By the way, engineer/author Arthur C. Clark spend a one hour television show deconstructing one of Randi’s “proofs”: Randi had set up a dowsing experiment in Australia and claimed that it proved that dowsing didn’t work. Clark demonstrated that Randi’s statistical analysis was bogus and, when done properly, proved (to ~90% certainty) the exact opposite. Naturally, neither Randi nor those scientists who claim that he “debunked” dowsing took any notice.

    You seem to think that I must convince you of the existence or quality of this evidence – why? The evidence is available for anyone to access, just as is the evidence of the correctness of quantum mechanics (as distinct from the multiple, philosophical meta-theories based on QM). (BTY, I probably know more about QM than you credit me with, as I have a MS in solid-state electronics.) If someone chooses to ignore it, that is their business.

    Your attempts to disparage me for my evidence-based belief in an afterlife (as well as other spiritual phenomena) hints of desperation, and illustrates that you have no real arguments to offer. Better you should wonder why you have an emotional need to believe something that is so strong that you can’t even admit the existence of contrary evidence.