What Hasn’t Changed in American Christianity (and what you should do about it)

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Sure, I’ll acknowledge that a lot has changed. Less people are church members – in fact less than half the adult population in the United States claimed to be church members in a March 2021 poll by Gallup – a first in our country. If you lump everyone together, you can claim on average that Christianity is declining. 

Note the “on average” part. Being a church member and actually attending a church are two different things. Consider that about a quarter of people who self-identify as “Evangelicals” rarely attend church.

I graduated from what was once considered the leading evangelical seminary in the world – Fuller Seminary Today, Fuller’s President, Rev. Mark Labberton, won’t even use the term “evangelical” to describe the Seminary or the revival movement it seeks to lead.

Point being, we have to be very careful about over-generalizing the various “Sky is falling” prognostications about American Christianity we hear with regularity. 

Without dispute, here are…

Five things that have NOT changed in American Christianity for years:

(1) Secularization is polarization. A strong core of deeply committed Christians remain – between one-third to over one-half depending on the region of the country.

Reflecting on the latest bad new religious poll in 2015, Dr. Ed Stetzer made the crucial point that the people leaving church membership, the so-called “Nones”, were ambivalent about Christianity in the first place:

“In the past, those of nominal faith were a bridge between the Christian community and the irreligious community. As the cultural cost of being a Christian increases, people who were once Christians in name only likely have started to identify as nones, disintegrating the “ideological bridge” between unbelievers and believers.”

Christians who claim at least weekly attendance remained relatively flat, with a one-point drop from 48% to 47%. The picture looks remarkably similar — and stable — throughout Christianity and other faiths.

Instead of decreasing their devotion in a time of increased secularism, the deeply religious are more committed than ever. While there was a drop in the percentage of religiously affiliated who say religion is “somewhat” important in their life (27% to 25%), those who say religion is “very important” jumped two points from 64% to 66%. Among Christians specifically, it climbed from 66% to 68%.

That was 2015. Surely, this has changed, right?

In fact, it has not. Here is a direct quote from the important book, Secular Surge, by David E. Campbell et. al:

Although it is not a focus of this analysis, our findings are consistent with evidence that religious intensity has not declined over time and may even have increased in relative importance.

(p. 106, emphasis added.)

Here’s Ilana M. Horwitz, God, Grades, and Graduation, hot off the press in 2022:

Although average rates of religiosity in America are in decline and people are increasingly identifying as religiously unaffiliated, the percentage of Americans who are deeply religious has not budged. In 2017, sociologists Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock examined religious change between 1989 and 2016 using data from the General Social Survey across three groups: the most intensely religious, the least religious, and those in-between. They found intense religiosity has remained largely unchanged from the 1970s to the present.

(p. 11, emphasis added.)

(2) America remains the most religious of modern industrialized nations, with no exceptions. This is by far – only Canada and Italy come within striking distance.

(3) Regional differences remain very important. Once again, Horwitz:

About 75% of the residents of southeastern states like Arkansas, Louisiana, and South Carolina are deeply religious. In Western states that are often thought of as more secular like California, Oregon, and Washington, about 45% of residents are still deeply religious. Even in the least religious states like Massachusetts, Vermont, and Main, about one in three adults is deeply religious.

(P.11)

(4) Christianity continues to have a profound and largely positive influence on the trajectory of our lives. For starters, Upper Middle and Lower Middle-class students who are sincere Christians are much more likely to graduate from high school and college. This is in addition to a long list of socially desirable traits, flowing from conscientiousness and compassion. Sincerely Christian students are less likely to divorce, use drugs – or even suffer as much from postpartum depression.

I keep finding new benefits of sincere Christian belief in academic research, and I have pulled them together in “The Research Case for Christian Education,” which you can request here, free.

(5) Finally, what hasn’t changed in the entire 15 years of GraceWorks surveys of Christian school parents, is that parents themselves come to believe strongly in the benefits of Christianity in their child’s instruction. It takes a couple of years, but by year three at your school, by the numbers, most parents get it. I am concerned about whether our public-school refugees will stay for 2 years, but so far, our survey results, and overall retention, are good.

What should you, as leaders of a Christian school, do about this?

It’s not some quaint notion to increase the Christian content of your website. Wherever you are located in our great nation, a third to half of Millennials – yes Millennials – will have strong faith convictions. Go after them!

Don’t hold back your Christianity on either your website or literature. Pray with parents when you meet with them. Make the case for Christian Education. Don’t hold back.

We know, from the results of tens of thousands of survey respondents, that parents who do and do not attend church see the importance of various program elements quite differently. If you want parents to judge you primarily on your academics, go after the unchurched. That could be a tough battle to win in high socio-economic areas.

You will always win on Christian character. Always. No public or even charter school can remotely match what you do day-in and day-out in your Christian school. It is your unique competitive advantage and best differentiator.

If it seems like you are mostly getting non-Christians to darken the door, maybe your own website is screening out the very families who will thrive at your school. We can analyze this free, with our Christian School Website Audit.

The bottom line is that there remains plenty of intensely, seriously Christian families out there whose children would absolutely shine at your school. Horowitz’s careful research found that middle class boys, particularly, are so blessed being at your school. Have financial aid policies that accommodate these families. If you can’t figure that out, let’s talk.

We have never had the tremendous opportunity in K-12 Christian education that we are having now. If you are not growing, something is wrong. We would be glad to help. Just ask.

And don’t be discouraged by the next “sky is falling” bad-news for religion report. The five issues I highlighted above haven’t changed, and aren’t likely to change, anytime soon.

Get the Case for Christian Education

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