The Myth of the Dying Church | Book Review


The rise of the “Nones”—that share of the American populace that claims no religious affiliation—is one of the most important religion stories of the past decade. Unfortunately, its import is often misunderstood. Rather than portending the decline of American Christianity per se, the rise of the Nones portends the decline of certain kindsof American Christianity.

In The Myth of the Dying Church, Glenn T. Stanton presents a rollicking account of which forms of American Christianity are thriving and which are declining. The myth consists of two claims. The general claim is that “Christianity has been declining over the last decade, with people simply losing interest in it and going elsewhere.” This claim is the one readers typically come across in secular media. The specific claim, one that readers often come across in Christian media, is that “our children and their friends…are highly unlikely to hang on to their faith as they get older.”

Stanton debunks the myth’s general claim by pushing past headlines and pointing out details typically buried at the bottom of  news stories. Similarly, he goes beyond the topline summaries of leading statistical reports and pointing out the nuances of the numbers. While his presentation of the details has the feel of a blog article—Stanton writes for TheFederalist.com—his endnotes show a clear familiarity with the relevant literature.

So, how does Stanton debunk the general claim? By pointing out three statistical trends: “the greatest movement of growth within Christianity is found among the evangelical nondenominational churches. The nones are not a new or growing category, but merely a change in identity. And the greatest movement in decline within Christianity over the last fifty years, right up to today, is liberal Christianity.”

The first and third trends are mirror images: Evangelical Christianity is holding strong while the bottom is dropping out of mainline Christianity. Pew Research indicates that most Nones are coming out of mainline churches and Roman Catholicism, not evangelical—or more conservative forms of—Christianity. And statistically speaking, it would be more accurate to describe Nones as denominalizing rather than deconverting. In other words, it is people with weak ties to Christian faith and practice who are shedding their nominal affiliation, not people with strong faith and practice who are apostatizing.

What about the specific claim? It’s pretty common in evangelical Christian circles to hear that the vast majority of young adults raised in church will abandon that faith in young adulthood. Stanton concedes that most Christian young adults experience fluctuations in the intensity of their religious commitment and consistency of their spiritual practice during the college and post-college years. This is an almost inevitable aspect of passing from a faith you learned from your parents to a faith you own for yourself. It’s called growing up.

But studies from Vern Bengston, Christian Smith, and others demonstrate that traditional forms of Christianity are very effective at passing along the faith to the next generation. Moreover, attendance records demonstrate that, in Stanton’s words, “more young people are attending evangelical churches today than they have in quite a long time; more than twice as many who did forty years ago.” Both points call into question the notion that evangelical young adults in particular are leaving the faith in large amounts.

Of course, evangelical youth in general might not be leaving the faith, but your own kids might be doing so. Stanton addresses that problem by outlining the kinds of parental practices that help moms and dads help their daughters and sons own the faith for themselves. These practices are “neither a crapshoot nor rocket science,” as Stanton humorously puts it, and consist largely of “teaching and modeling spiritual disciplines” and helping kids form relationships with other “trust and dependable adults who function like additional parents, but in some uniquely influential ways.”

On the whole, I think Stanton’s reading of the statistical evidence is right on target. His advice to parents is also quite helpful. If you’re a Christian, you don’t need to be a “Chicken Little” about the future of American Christianity.

At the same time, though, I think Stanton may underestimate the impact of the decline of mainline Protestantism. Let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that a lot of people who used to identify with mainline denominations but no longer do so had weak ties with Christian faith and practice to begin with. Let’s also stipulate that mainline Christianity has gone off the reservation in terms of theological orthodoxy. (I have mainline friends who would dispute both points, but just go with me for a second.)

Even stipulating that, the fact that nearly one quarter of Americans now claim no religious identification—and even high percentages of younger generations—creates problems for those with active Christian commitments because it indicates that a growing share of Americans no longer consider Christianity a plausible alternative. In previous generations, evangelism consisted of turning nominal Christians into born-again Christians. Now, evangelism consists of converting people from post-Christianity back to authentic Christianity. It’s one thing to convert pagans to something new. It’s another thing entirely to convert people to Christianity when they’ve already rejected it culturally, even if only at a surface level.

Additionally, the rise of the Nones creates new difficulties for American public discourse. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr.—a Baptist minister, remember—was able to use biblical imagery to unite Americans around the cause of civil rights. This religious language united Americans across race, class, and region. When King cited Scripture, even his racist critics knew what he was talking about. The loss of even nominal Christianity, in my opinion, means that American culture no longer has that kind of unifying religious language that King was able to access in his monumental struggle.

It’s a bit unfair of me to critique Stanton for failing to address my concerns about the religious trends he writes about. His writing purpose is to debunk the myth that American Christianity is dying. It isn’t. If you don’t believe me, read Stanton’s convincing book. But don’t get too comfortable once you know the myth has been debunked. American Christianity isn’t dying, but its cultural context is changing, and those changes portend challenges that will only get harder in the near term.

Book Reviewed
Glenn T. Stanton, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Thriving in America and the World (New York: Worthy Publishing, 2019).

P.S. If you like my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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How to Be a Man-Friendly Church


Roughly half the U.S. population is male, but fewer men attend church on average than women do. In the Assemblies of God, for example, the latest statistics indicate that men account for 31.5 percent of Sunday morning attendees, while women account for 40.4 percent. This gap in attendance reveals a ministry opportunity.

Earlier this year, Michael Zigarelli — professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania — conducted a qualitative survey of seven Protestant churches with greater parity in attendance between men and women. His working paper, “Churches that Attract Men,” identified transferable principles of man-friendly churches and is the springboard for today’s Influence Podcast conversation between him and me.

Topics of conversation include why attracting men is a good church-growth strategy and what man-friendly churches have in common. But Zigarelli also addresses “pushback questions”: Why are we talking about man-friendly churches in a culture that’s talking about “toxic masculinity”? Does being man-friendly trade on shopworn gender stereotypes or complementarian views of church leadership? And does attracting men create a void of ministry to women and children?

It’s an interesting, informative conversation, so make sure to listen to the entire thing!

Thursday’s Influence Magazine Article


Today, over at InfluenceMagazine.com:

  • Kristi Northup wonders whether the Great Commission is going out of style. (Hopefully not!)
  • John Davidson interviews Bruce Statements about making your church safe for the Influence Podcast.
  • Christina Quick notes the projected continuing growth of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa.

Please make sure to follow and like InfluenceInfluence magazine on Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes!

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Monday, June 13, 2011


“A Very Christian Atheist.” About George Orwell. I liked this quote from Orwell in particular:

…when one’s belly is empty, one’s only problem is an empty belly. It is when we have got away from drudgery and exploitation that we shall really start wondering about man’s destiny and the reason for his existence. One cannot have any worthwhile picture of the future unless one realises how much we have lost by the decay of Christianity.

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Breaking Up with God: I Didn’t Lose My Faith, I Left It.” I’m interested in these kinds of stories because my doctoral research is going to focus on deconversion narratives. This paragraph caught my eye:

That there is more to God than most of us have been taught in church. That faith is an imaginative, constructive, ethical enterprise. That theology matters. That the way we think about God has a real effect on the earth and on other human beings. That we are the ones we have been waiting for. In the book I write, “This is my faith: a fragile hope in what humanity might be able to do when we stop looking for someone else to save us,” and I think that sentence sums up what the book is about.

Didn’t we just live through a century with that “fragile hope.” How did it work out?

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“How saying a blessing changed my secular family’s meals.” Well, if you’re going to be thankful, you need to be thankful to someone, right?

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“Dalai Lama: ‘I Am a Marxist, But Not a Leninist.’” If you’re a Marxist and a Buddhist, does that make you a Barxist? Or a Muddhist? Inquiring minds…

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Is Christian exclusivism bad? Part 1 of what promises to be an interesting two-part series.

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David Koresh Superstar? Uh, no thank you!

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“Arkansas atheists sue over bus ads on God-free lifestyle.” Of course they did.

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“Animal rights philosopher Peter Singer expands on why he is backing away from his famous philosophy.” Well, the “preference utilitarianism” part, anyway.

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“Inerrancy, Not So Arrogant.” In which Collin Hansen discusses what Jesus and Sarah Palin do not have in common.

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“How Not to Grow a Healthy Church.”

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