Much has been written and discussed about this year’s Pew Research Center poll, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, and I’ve also weighed in on the findings. The percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. When statistics like these are released, it’s tempting to panic and respond without properly examining the trends. The devil is always in the details, however, and a careful analysis of the data ought to energize rather than discourage us. Opportunities abound, and the case for Christianity is more important than ever.
While more and more people say they no longer identify as Christians, the ranks of atheists and agnostics are not growing in equal percentages. During the same seven year span, as Christian affiliation dropped by 7.8%, those claiming an atheist affiliation only grew by 1.5%. So where did all the Christians go? They went to the ranks of those claiming no affiliation with any established Christian denomination or belief system (a category affectionately called, “the nones”). Importantly, those who no longer claim a Christian attachment, have not yet jumped in with the atheists or agnostics. They haven’t even jumped in with other religious groups (such as Jewish, Muslim or other believers). This is an important reality for all of us who seek to make the case for Christianity. We sometimes mistakenly think our culture is becoming more and more atheistic. It isn’t. Instead, it’s simply becoming less and less Christian.
People are not nearly as resistant to the existence of God as the more liberal, atheistic media would like us to believe. In fact, 92.9% of the country rejects atheism and is open to the existence of God in one form or another. We are a country of theists, even though we might be divided on which form of theism (or deism) is true. That’s why the case for Christianity is more important than ever.
Those who believe in the existence of God, yet reject Christianity, can still be reached for Christ. I sometimes think this group of “nones” has rejected their experience in the Church rather than their belief in Jesus. That may simply be a reflection of the sad, non-evidential nature of the Church rather than a reflection of the strong evidential nature of Christianity. Some of those who have left our ranks may never have heard anything about the evidence supporting the Christian worldview in all the years they were attending church with us. My own anecdotal experience, as I speak at churches around the country, supports this uncomfortable hypothesis. Most churches are still uninterested in making the case for Christianity, while more and more Christians want to know why Christianity is true.
Now is the time to make the case for the reliability of the New Testament, the historicity ad Deity of Jesus and the reasonable inference of the Resurrection. People are still hovering in the “nones” category, open to the existence of God, but skeptical of their past experience in Christianity. Now is the time to show them a new way forward and a reasonable path to belief. The reasonable, evidential case for Christianity is more important than ever.
Religious freedom has certainly been in the news over the past few years, given the controversy over many elements of President Obama’s healthcare program and the recent religious freedom bills in Indiana and Arkansas. But if I am honest, I sometimes wonder why we, as Christians, are so concerned about religious freedom. Especially when don’t seem to exercise our freedom very often.
As I travel around the country making the case for the Christian worldview, I sometimes ask my audiences about their own efforts to share the gospel or defend the faith. In most settings (at churches, Christian conferences and schools), there are only one or two attendees who say they regularly share their Christian beliefs in any setting. Think about that for a minute. When was the last time you shared the truth about Jesus with someone at work, at school, at family gatherings or (dare I say) in public? I bet if you are honest, it’s been a while. For the majority of us (yes, the majority) it’s probably never happened.
I’ve written about evangelism quite a bit at ColdCaseChristianity.com, and I think there are several obstacles (either real or imagined) that keep us from sharing what we know to be true. Here is my list, hyperlinked to articles I’ve written to help you overcome whatever fears may have:
- We mistakenly think our beliefs about Christianity are entirely subjective
- We think we have to be a theologian or apologist to share effectively
- We aren’t sure who we should share with
- We are simply afraid to take the first step
- We think we have to know someone well before we can share the truth
- We’re not sure how to engage people (especially people we don’t know well)
- We’re afraid of feeling uncomfortable at any point in the process
- We hold pessimistically low expectations of being successful
- We have been conditioned to speak a Christian language foreign to the secular culture
- We think our success as evangelists is entirely dependent on our individual effort
Take a look at that list; I bet your hesitancy is represented somewhere. It’s time to get busy, folks. Don’t let your excuses become obstacles. If we want to be consistent in our concerns and objections related to the shrinking religious freedoms we are about to experience, we need to be a people who actively exercise our religious freedom on a daily basis. We can’t simply complain about losing something we never used in the first place. Exercise your freedom. Speak up. Share the truth.
I’ll post these ten evangelism obstacles later this week in the form of a free Bible insert.
Yesterday’s release of the Pew Research Center’s report, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” affirms what most of us already know: Fewer and fewer people in America identify themselves as “Christian”. I’ve been reading the reaction to the poll with great interest. Many of us seem to still be in denial about this continuing trend away from the Church; some interpret the statistics as little more than movement away from traditional denominations (and not necessarily a departure from Christianity). The interactive data doesn’t support this optimistic view, however. Fewer people appear to believe Christianity is true today than seven years ago, and this should energize all of us to become better Christian Case Makers. Here is what I see in the 2014 Pew Research Center Report:
Unsurprising: Fewer People Claim to Be Christians
Most people in America still call themselves Christians. In fact, the Christian majority (70.6%) is very large when compared to other groups (Jewish believers account for 1.9%, Muslims .9%, Buddhists .7%, Hindus .7%, Atheists 3.1% and Agnostics 4%). But the percentage of people who describe themselves as Christians fell nearly 8 percentage points; from 78.4% to 70.6%. Some Christians have argued this only reflects a shift from denominationalism, but the Pew survey allowed participants to identify themselves as “Other Christians” if they wanted to recognize their non-denominational affiliation. Respondents didn’t identify themselves in this way. The unsurprising truth: fewer and fewer Americans identify themselves as Christians (denominational or otherwise). There’s no denying this reality.
Surprising: Atheism Isn’t Growing Dramatically
Some news accounts of the American shift in religious identity have reported that “atheists and agnostics have nearly doubled their share of the religious marketplace”. While this may be statistically true, it easy to site these impressive sounding numbers when your group is tiny to begin with. Remember, atheists still only account for 3.1% of the population. In the past seven years, when Christian identity fell by 8%, atheism only grew by 3%. It’s easy to assume all those who leave Christianity become atheists, but this isn’t the case. Much of the demographic data is simply the result of growing emigrational diversity. As non-Christian immigrants continue to grow in number, they import their own religious identity and the overarching national demographic statistics continue to shift. This may help explain why non-Christian religious groups have grown in numbers over the past seven years. But here is the most important statistic: The largest growing group are simply those who claim no religious affiliation (the “nones”). These folks don’t identify themselves as Christians, but they don’t identify themselves as atheists or agnostics either. According to the Pew Report, most “nones” don’t commit to any particular view about God and say instead that they believe “nothing in particular.” Not all “nones” deny the existence of God, however. In fact, 30% report that religion is still at least somewhat important to them. “Nones” aren’t necessarily convinced God doesn’t exist, they simply either resist the claims of Christianity or are completely disinterested. Many are theists of one kind or another, but most (39%) report they simply aren’t interested in religion.
Unsurprising: Young People Are Leaving At the Highest Rate
The Pew survey found young people are leaving Christianity at the fastest pace. Each successive generation is less connected to Christianity than their parents. Although nearly 86% of Americans say they grew up as Christians, about one in five (19%) say they no longer claim Christianity is true. If we combine this polling with the growing body of literature describing the exodus of young people, the picture becomes even starker. Young people are more likely to leave Christianity than any other group. Alan Cooperman, Pew's director of religion research said, “Overall, there are more than four former Christians for every convert to Christianity.”
Surprising: The Least Educated Are More Likely to Be Atheists
The media sometimes portrays atheists as the thoughtful, intelligent and informed people of America. Atheists groups try to reinforce this depiction. David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, responded to the Pew report by claiming, “More people (atheists) know the facts, and more people realize they are not alone.” But the statistics show that most atheists are not highly educated. According to the Pew survey, the largest group of atheists (57%) have less than a bachelor’s degree (26% have a high school diploma or less). Only 26% have completed a four year degree program and only 16% have a post-graduate degree. Make no mistake about it, Christian statistics are similarly poor, but here’s my point: many Christians tend to shrink from engaging their openly non-believing friends because they feel intellectually intimidated. But the largest group of atheists are just like the largest group of Christians - neither majority possesses a graduate degree. We are far more alike than we are different in this regard.
Unsurprising: Women Are More Likely to Identify As Christian Than Men
If you’ve taken a good look at your local congregation lately, you’ve probably already noticed there are more women in the pews than men. This is confirmed by the statistical data. Today, women comprise 55% of Christian congregations, while men only represent 45%. The numbers are about the same as they were seven years ago (when men represented 46 percent of congregations). Most Christians are women and most Christians are also married (52%).
Surprising: Nearly Every Other Group Is Dominated by Men
Men, however, dominate every other group of believers. 52% of Jewish believers, 65% of Muslims, 51% of Buddhists, and 62% of Hindus are men. Even more striking is the disparity among non-believers. 68% of atheists, 62% of agnostics and 57% of the “nones” are men. Christianity has simply not done a good job engaging the hearts and minds of men when every other group has.
Statistics are useless unless they call us to action. Given what the Pew Research Center’s report has revealed, what should we, as Christians concerned about the state of Christian belief, do in response? Here are my “take-aways”:
1. Don’t panic
It’s tempting to over-react and I’ll admit, my focus on case making and the exodus of young people here at Cold-Case Christianity can be misinterpreted with a false sense of hysteria. That’s not my purpose at all. Our country isn’t truly “post-Christian” yet. The vast majority of our fellow citizens still identify themselves as Christian, and even those in the “none” category aren’t necessarily closed to the case for Christianity.
2. Take it seriously
Even though our population isn’t yet “post-Christian”, the media and growing cultural worldview are. That’s why it’s important to take this data seriously. We’re still in the early stages of a tremendous cultural shift, but if we don’t get involved now and take the data seriously, it’ll be a lot harder to correct our course later.
3. Get involved
I sometimes hear Christian express reluctance to make a case for what they believe because they are intimidated by the learning curve and the fear they will encounter people who are more educated or savvy. The data reveals just the opposite. You may not be a scientist or a philosopher but you are fully capable of reaching those who are still outside the Church. You’re smart enough to get in the game.
4. Elevate young people
As I’ve said a million times here at ColdCaseChristianity.com, students are still the most likely to leave Christianity, even though most are raised in the Church. The Pew statistics reinforce this reality. For this reason, we need to be focused on young people, starting with those in our own home. Now is the time to answer your kid’s questions and prepare them to defend what they believe.
5. Engage men
Most of us, as fathers and husbands, admittedly relinquish our role as spiritual leaders to our clergy or spouses. It’s time for me to step up and for churches to focus on men to equip and encourage them for this role. In our growingly egalitarian culture, few of us are willing to recognize the unique and important role of men in leadership, but in every other growing group described in the Pew report, men are actively leading the way. If you’re a Christian man, get off the bench. Get in the game.
I hope this brief recap of the Pew Research Center’s report is both sobering and inspiring. As Christians, we have a challenge in front of us but it is still early and we have the ability to respond. Remember, Christianity is unique among worldviews. We believe something testable, and Christianity passes the test. Let’s respond in a way few other theistic believers can: let’s get out there and make the case for what we believe.
I’ve been writing recently about jury selection. If you are interested in making a case for what you believe as a Christian, you probably already recognize the importance of preparation. You know how important it is to investigate the issues and evidences diligently and to train yourself to articulate the arguments and philosophical premises. You may even envision yourself as a character in a courtroom setting: a detective or prosecutor who cleverly and powerfully makes the case for Christ. To further this vision, you may try to sharpen your investigative skills or your ability as a presenter, hoping your excellence in these areas will make you a better case maker. But as a cold-case detective and part of a three generation law enforcement family, I’ve got a secret I’d like to share with you: the majority of criminal (and civil) cases are won or lost well before the opening statements or closing arguments. Most cases are decided at jury selection.
You can have a great case but lose miserably if you don’t have the right jury. As the case agent and investigating detective in many high profile criminal trials, I’ve learned to look for three things in every juror, and these are the same attributes I seek in those with whom I share the case for Christianity: I’m looking for people who are passionate about the issues, open to hearing the case and humble enough not to let their ego get in the way. Humility is an incredibly characteristic for jurors, because humility helps us hear the gospel:
My cold-case criminal trials are difficult and complex. They are usually built cumulatively and circumstantially. I need smart, interested and fair jurors if I hope to succeed. When picking a jury, I look for people who enjoy a challenge and love puzzles. If you’re an engineer or programmer, you’re a good candidate for one of my cases. But while I respect intelligence and critical thinking, I’m cautious about impaneling someone who has expertise in an area critical to our case. If we’re going to call an electrical professional as an expert witness, for example, we probably won’t put an electrician on our jury. Why? Because time and time again we’ve seen jurors become prideful when they encounter testimony within their discipline. Jurors who think they are experts in a particular field sometimes have difficulty accepting the testimony of other experts. It’s often a matter of pride. Good decision making requires a degree of humility, and jurors who think they know better can make a mess of your case. I want jurors who are smart but teachable; jurors who won’t allow their pride to stand in the way of the truth. I’m looking for humble jurors.
As a Christian case maker, I’ve come to recognize the relationship between knowledge and pride. As one increases, so can the other, and no one is exempt (including me). The internet has only complicated the matter for those of us who want to share the truth about Christianity. There’s enough information available online to make just about anyone an “expert” on any number of theological, scientific or philosophical subjects, even though this information is often un-vetted and unreliable. It can be difficult to share truth with people who arrogantly think they’ve already mastered a topic by surfing the web. These people aren’t hard to spot; most of us recognize arrogance from a distance. When looking for opportunities to share, I try to identify people who are smart but teachable; folks who won’t allow their pride to stand in the way of the truth. I’m looking for humble jurors.
Jurors aren’t the only ones in jeopardy from arrogant over-confidence. Case makers also place themselves at risk when they allow excessive pride to characterize their efforts. As the Bible accurately describes, “Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Proverbs 16:18). When a detective takes the stand in a criminal case and comes off as arrogant or brash, his testimony is likely to be rejected by a jury. In a similar way, prosecutors and attorneys who appear haughty or self-important typically alienate the very jury they are trying to engage. If you’re trying to make the case for Christianity and encounter a prideful resister, take a minute to examine your own attitude. One sure way to amplify the pride of someone you’re trying to reach is to allow your own arrogance to overtake you. When pride meets pride, nothing good results. If you can be humble, self-effacing and gracious in your approach, you’re far more likely to draw those characteristics out of the person you are trying to reach. Peter understood this all too well when he called us to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15).”
The best jurors are passionate, open-minded, and humble, and it’s important to understand these characteristics if we hope to have an impact as Christian Case Makers. If you’ve spent time thinking through the evidence and you think you are prepared to make a case for what you believe as a Christian, take an equally conscientious approach to the selection of your potential jury. Remember, most cases are decided at jury selection. If you spend a little more time choosing your audience, you’ll be far more likely to reach your audience.