Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of Default Christianity. At least I hope so. It’s been hanging on for so long it’s hard to believe that it can ever die. I want to be at the funeral just so I can take a good, hard look in the casket. Default Christianity showed up at a family reunion one day, ate the food, slept on the couch, and after a while everyone just assumed that it must be someone’s cousin that no one recognized. It showed up year after year until we believed that it was part of the family. It learned the family stories and picked up the family way of talking, but the truth is that it was never part of the family.
Recent news reports have been citing a Pew Research Study that says, among other things, that in America Atheism and Agnosticism are on the rise and Christianity is on the downturn to the tune of 8% over the past seven years. The percentage of people surveyed that identify themselves as Christian has fallen from ~79% to ~71%. “Christianity is in sharp decline,” they say. Christians see this and are running around with their hands in the air—here’s proof positive that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Atheists are rejoicing—people are coming to their senses. Christianity in the West is dying. They’re putting religion to death!
Is it, though? Those numbers are saying something very different to me.
I don’t believe that 8% drop represents the loss of a single point of Christianity. In fact, I think that the 71% is still an incredibly soft number. Look at it this way: If we’re walking around town, and seven out of ten people are actually committed Christians, our world looks pretty good. If seven out of ten people were Christian, I’d be incredibly excited. I’d also wonder what I was doing here as a pastor. Everything I preached would be preaching to the choir.
Honestly, though, I think it’s obvious to everyone that seven years ago, eight out of ten Americans were not Christian. Today, I think it’s pretty clear that seven out of ten Americans aren’t followers of Jesus Christ. In fact, I’d be pretty surprised if seven out of ten people in our churches are Christian. Christianity isn’t dying. If there’s a decline, it’s not anything new. What’s happening is that the number of people who say they’re Christians is declining, and that’s a very different thing. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a good thing.
I’d be pretty surprised if seven out of ten people in our CHURCHES are Christian.
So what’s going on? Shocked, SHOCKED we are to find that gambling is going on here. The dirty little secret of American Christianity is being revealed: Many Christians aren’t Christian. The big numbers were great for making ourselves feel better, or giving weight to our political arguments, or the vague prestige of being the “dominant” religion, but deep down, I think we all knew they weren’t real. At least everyone that didn’t think that coming to church on Christmas Eve and—if pressed—saying that Christmas is about Jesus, and having neither of those things make a tangible impact on your life made you a Christian knew.
The truth is that much of that 79% were Christian by default. They weren’t anything else and they didn’t feel like they weren’t Christian, so they checked the box. It was like a more-true-than-not-true answer that cost them nothing. Their parents said they were Christian. Their neighbors said that they were Christian. Their politicians said they were Christian. They didn’t look any different, so they must be Christian.
They aren’t checking the box anymore, and that scares us.
Where some people once saw prestige and membership in a dominant club, they now see more prestige in being areligious. There’s not the same social pressure to be a “believer”. These are people that are going to jump on the popularity train whichever way it’s going. They’re not “Christian” anymore, but nothing has really changed. I don’t think they’re really atheist, either, just popularist.
Other people are just becoming more and more willing to actually define what they believe. They were default Christians because that was all there was for them. They either weren’t able because they didn’t see a viable alternative, or they hadn’t really thought through what they said they believed. When they dug in, they found that what they said they believed didn’t line up with what they lived out, or what they wanted to believe, and they said so.
I really believe that those are the 8% that have dropped. I also think we need to see at least another 20% go.
We shouldn’t be afraid when we see these numbers drop; we should be rejoicing. There’s three big reasons for this. The first is that, if we’re people of truth, we want to see the numbers reflect reality. Artificially inflated numbers should bother us. In fact, WE should be the first ones calling them out. The second is that, if the numbers keep going the direction they are, it means that the Church might soon be free to be the Church. Without being weighed down by vague cultural expectations, or people that want to be along for the ride without any of the cost, we can follow Christ. Cultural Christianity—Christianity by default—has been an anchor that keeps the church stagnant and uncommitted, even irrelevant.
The transforming power and presence of Jesus Christ isn’t going anywhere, nor are the people who have experienced that transformation. The third reason is wrapped up in that. When the numbers line up with reality, we can see clearly the multitudes who really need to know Christ. There are so many people—Default Christians—that we pass by on the streets and church picnics and ignore. We think they’re “saved” or whatever, in the group. We lament that they aren’t doing their part or that they aren’t living up to our expectations, but we never stop to consider that even though they check the box, they still have yet to know Jesus. These are the unreached people in our pews.
Maybe if they’re out of our pews we might be moved to reach them.
So let’s let Default Christianity die. It was nice while it lasted, and definitely convenient, but its time has passed. Over and over again, the Church has found that convenient Christianity has been cancerous. Maybe we should be looking at those numbers not as a sign of overall health and strength of our faith, but more like BMI. There is a point where the higher number is just showing fat.