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.
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.