In her book Stitches, Anne Lamott relates a charming story her pastor once told about a little sparrow lying with both legs up in the air. A warhorse approached the bird and asked what the bird was doing. The bird replied, “I heard the sky was falling, and I wanted to help.” The horse mockingly asked the sparrow if she thought she could do a thing to prevent the sky from falling with her scrawny little bird legs. The sparrow replied, “One does what one can.”
Pew Research Center recently released a new survey on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” and from the response on the blogosphere, one would think that the sky was falling. Each new blog post is like another sparrow on its back, legs high in the air, hoping to stop the sky from crashing down on us.
Even though I’m sure this topic has reached the saturation point, I wanted to share briefly just a few thoughts I have had as I’ve reflected on both the survey and the response from Christian leaders and bloggers. These aren’t in any particular order.
1. Numbers are not people or stories. Numbers may give us some interesting information, but when it comes to people and spirituality, those numbers will be desperately incomplete. Numbers do not give us a “why,” nor do they allow people to tell their own stories. We may be able to poll quantitatively how many Americans identify as Christian via a telephone poll. What we cannot do is determine what prompted that identification.
Ed Stetzer has done some compelling work – and some very persuasive speaking – on the observable reality that worship attendance is declining across the United States. He suggests that Christianity in the U.S. is not falling apart, but rather that “it’s being clarified.” What he means by that is that only recently has it become socially acceptable to have no religious affiliation. Whereas there used to be social stigma and loss that occurred from not identifying as Christian, those losses are not nearly as prevalent in 2015 as they once were. He suggests that the rising category of “the nones” is made up of those who were once nominal (Christian in name only) but are now more willing to make clear how they identify.
Rachel Held Evans suggests that the rapid decline in attendance – particularly among Millennials – is because the church has not been welcoming of doubts and struggles, and because Millennials are tired of being marketed to with raucous, concert-like worship services.
So, which is it? Or could it be a piece of what Ed Stetzer has suggested and a piece of what Rachel Held Evans has suggested? The truth is, we don’t really know. We would need to listen to the stories of those who once identified as Christian and no longer do. And, I’m guessing their responses are not something that could be neatly represented on a chart.
2. Christianity is only in decline if your focus is solely on the United States. As of 2011, Christianity has continued to grow rapidly, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Asia-Pacific region. Though the percentage of the world’s population identifying as Christian has remained the same (proportionally), the population of the world has continued to grow. There are more Christians in the world today than there were ten years ago, they just aren’t living in the same parts of the world as they used to. Worries about the “declining church” reveal far more than institutional anxiety, but also uncovers our self-centered perspective of the church. Christianity is far bigger than one country or nationality, and God continues to grow the church around the world.
3. The survey didn’t change the church. All it did was quantify a reality that many (if not most) churches across the country had already noticed. For the past several years, countless books, seminars, and workshops on church growth and revitalization have promised to stop the decline and bring people back to church. Countless blogs have been dedicated to “understanding Millennials” so that we can begin to understand why their generation (and mine) are largely absent from the church. We’ve blamed school sports on Sundays, lousy music, antiquated preaching, gossipy people. But what we’ve really been trying to do is find a cause for the decline in worship attendance because we’ve noticed it.
But, we have to remember we didn’t get here overnight. The problems and issues that have brought us to where we are likely won’t be fixed overnight, either. They are things we have to commit to working on for the long haul, not because we want to bring young people back, but because they are changes the church needs to make in order to be more faithful. The survey didn’t change the church, it only describes what we’ve already noticed. And, while that description may raise our anxiety, it hasn’t changed anything. It simply put on paper something we hoped we were only imagining. It made it feel more real.
4. Observation and critique can only take the church so far. I don’t have the heart to read another book, or survey, or blog post about what’s wrong with the church if it doesn’t offer any solutions. It’s easy to look at the church and see problems. The church is, after all, a collection of people. And where there are people, there will be struggles, and difficulties, and disagreements, and sin. Stone-throwing is easy, but all it does is cause damage.
I truly believe that nearly everyone can take a look at the church in the United States and find legitimate problems. You could look at pretty much any other collection of people and find problems, too. Finding the problems isn’t going to help unless we’re also willing to do the deep work that’s necessary for lasting change.
5. God never promised Christians would be in the majority. Christians follow one who started with a scrappy, ragtag group of twelve people. We believe in a God who has made a habit of choosing the smaller, the younger, the weaker, the least expected. We worship a God who warned against putting our faith in numbers, and who accomplishes much from very little. Isn’t it God’s way to work through a struggling group of people who get a lot of things wrong? Christians were never promised majority status, comfort, power, or prestige. Why should we be surprised to find out that our majority status in the United States is in decline?
Surveys are useful tools only insofar as they propel us to dig deeper. Quantitative data will only help if we’re willing to do the qualitative work of asking questions and listening to what others have to say. But we can only do that if we let the anxiety out a little. Otherwise we’ll be like little sparrows trying to keep the sky from falling with our spindly little legs — worried, anxious, and straining, but accomplishing nothing.