You can feel it, can’t you?
You know it’s true. The evidence is all around us.
“American Christianity” is failing.
We can all sense it.
Turn on the TV. Browse the news online. Scroll through your Facebook timeline. Just visit a public school or university.
America is becoming an increasingly secular nation, one with less and less tolerance for Christian beliefs and practices.
What is going on? Why is this happening? Why is American Christianity falling apart?
And more importantly, what can we do to turn things around?
I’m not going to sugar coat it. The situation is not good. America has asked for this and now we’ve gotten what we asked for.
But thankfully, as Christians, our circumstances do not define us, nor do they dictate our joy.
Our circumstances do provide us opportunity, however. And with opportunity comes hope.
We can turn this around. You and me. We can make a difference. We can do this!
I’m gonna show you how.
First, let's define the problem.
What’s Going On?
A number of studies on religion in America have been conducted in recent years. This May 2015 study by Pew Research has been frequently cited over the past year by popular news sources such as The Washington Post and MSN, as well as Christian information sources like BillyGraham.org. Among its key takeaways:
- 70% of Americans self-identify as Christians in 2014, down from 78% in 2007.
- 23% of Americans claim no religious affiliation, up from 16% in 2007.
- Americans claiming non-Christian faiths rose from 4.7% to 5.9% with the greatest increases among Muslims and Hindus.
- Christianity is least common among Millennials. 36% of young (ages 18-24) Millennials are “religiously unaffiliated” as are 34% of older (ages 25-33) Millennials.
- 18% of U.S. adults were raised in a religious faith and now identify with no religion. Just 4.3% were raised with no religious faith and now claim a religion.
- More than 85% of Americans were raised Christian, but almost 25% of this group no longer identify with Christianity.
Other studies report similar findings. This study from Sage Open found that fewer Americans believe in God, pray, take the Bible literally or attend religious assemblies. The study concludes:
The 2010s are a time of tremendous change in the religious landscape of the United States. Although the majority of Americans are still religious, the declines in public religious affiliation observed in previous research have, by 2014, extended to private religious belief and action (such as prayer, belief in God, and identifying as religious). This decline was not replaced by a substantial increase in those identifying as spiritual. The slight increases in afterlife belief represent a potentially important exception to this pattern. Overall, the data suggest a pervasive decline in religious participation and belief among Americans, with a burgeoning minority becoming decidedly nonreligious.
I find these studies quite consistent with my general observations and the recent American societal trends.
So what gives?
Why are Americans Less Interested in Christianity?
This is a large, complex, multifaceted question. I really doubt any individual (this side of eternity) can fully explain all of the reasons.
Frankly, I’ve been unimpressed with previous attempts to answer this question and think I can offer a more comprehensive analysis. And because this is such an important question, I decided to undertake the challenge.
I believe the perspective I offer here strikes closer to the roots in explaining why Christianity is struggling in America.
But before proceeding, I must address an important point that’s eating a hole in me. Surveys that measure religion rely on what people self-report. While this may be the best we can do, we must note that a vast difference exists between what people say and do.
In all generations and locations, there is a big gap between what a population claims to be spiritually / religiously and how they live. Survey data must be viewed through this lens.
It’s not the change in numbers that matters so much, but the societal change that they represent.
Two General Categories
In the broadest analysis, the factors negatively impacting American interest in Christianity can be grouped into societal issues and spiritual issues.
Societal factors tend to be more visible and obvious, the spiritual factors more fundamental and impactful, yet subjective.
Let’s look at the societal factors first.
The factors involved in complex questions like this are an interconnected web that makes it difficult to know where best to begin. Let’s start at home.
Erosion of Family
According to the American Psychological Association, between 40-50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce.
This Huffington Post article reports that the divorce rate varies significantly geographically. And guess where the highest rates are? In the Bible Belt—the southeast.
As the kids say text, “SMH.”
Generally speaking, kids that have full-time relationships with their mother and father have a much better chance of thriving.
Child Trends finds that:
- The number and the type of parents (e.g., biological, step) in the household, as well as the relationship between the parents, are consistently linked to a child’s well-being.
- Children living with two married adults (biological or adoptive parents) have, in general, better health, greater access to health care, and fewer emotional or behavioral problems than children living in other types of families.
- Children whose parents are divorced also have lower academic performance, social achievement, and psychological adjustment than children with married parents.
Whatever the causes, an increase in single-parent households and grandparents-raising-grandkids results in increased problems among America’s children.
(Let me pause and clarify: Sometimes life throws parents and grandparents a curveball. Sometimes being a single parent or a grandparent raising grandkids is not “chosen” but necessary. For those of you in this situation, you have my empathy, admiration and respect. For the rest of us, we need to do everything possible to lift up and support those in this difficult situation.)
But, generally speaking, GOD’s intent for families is for a husband / father and a wife / mother to raise their children together under one roof, in harmony. When we follow GOD’s plan, we’re better off.
Sadly, more and more, people have not followed GOD’s plan, choosing divorce and fornication over marital faithfulness. And America is suffering as a result.
Another major issue in American households today is fathers and husbands who abdicate their role.
Failure to take an active role in leading, teaching and growing our kids leads to numerous problems. Some dads are physically present but emotionally disconnected from their family.
Father Failure means mom has to step up (even more) because, after all, stuff has to get done. In time—and often very quickly—this causes burnout, bitterness and relationship problems including fighting. When this continues for longer periods of time, it tends to create a downward spiral that is incredibly difficult to break.
The solution is for mom and dad to turn to Jesus and learn how to imitate His behavior, thus breaking the cycle. But the greater the strife and discontent within the situation, and the longer the situation has been unhealthy, the more difficult this selfless behavior is to adopt and the less likely the situation is to improve—at least, before things completely fall apart.
Distractions and Unhealthy Input Sources
To say that Americans are busy and inundated with input sources is an understatement.
Input sources are those channels by which information enters our minds. What we put into our mind shows up in our thoughts, speech and behavior.
Television, music, movies, books, magazines, Internet, social media, video games, smart phones, texting, sports—the list is just scrolling, like side effects in a medicine commercial.
None of these things is inherently evil or destructive. Well, except maybe that side effects bit, but you get my point.
Yet there are two problems with Americans’ input sources:
- Their cumulative impact is often that we stay distracted from GOD and life’s most important matters.
- They are often overflowing with content that appeals to our fleshly desires which war against our spirit.
We’re Too Busy
Many Americans are just too busy.
Have you ever been around someone who simply cannot sit still? I have.
These people feel they must be doing something at all times. And guess what happens when they finally do sit still for five minutes. They fall sound asleep! Because they’re exhausted from constantly going.
I used to laugh at these people while being unable to imagine being like them. But recently I’ve begun to notice the same tendencies developing in myself.
I am very mindful of the brevity of life and, as a result, tend to feel this continual pressure to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of each day. Unfortunately, my pursuit of peak time optimization and productivity is starting to create negative habits. And now that I’ve become aware of this, I’m trying to change. But it’s hard.
Humans need to be still and rest periodically. Rest is essential to long-term success.
Yet many Americans are so busy that our lives seem like one continual uninterrupted stream of activity. And the busier we are, the more we tend to be driven by the urgent—that which is demanding our attention now.
As we all know, what is urgent and what is important are often not the same.
Throughout much of our lives, our relationship with GOD may not feel urgent. And when we take precious little time to pause, be still and take inventory of our lives, we may not think of GOD that often.
Lives not guided by GOD (and thus Christianity) lead down dark, problem-filled paths—paths many Americans are traveling.
Destructive Input Sources
In modern Western culture, our minds are practically continually stimulated by one or more input sources the entire time we’re awake. Our lives are a virtual Times Square.
We wake up to the radio on our alarm clock. We listen to music in the shower. The TV’s on while we’re eating breakfast. We listen to the radio on the way to work. We’re on the Internet and social media all throughout the day.
It never stops.
Because of the volume of attention we give them, each of these input sources also represents big business opportunities. And businesses exist to make money.
While there are certainly exceptions, often, the individuals who rise to the head of the world’s largest and most influential companies are not personally driven by Christian values. Obtaining and retaining these leadership positions can be extremely demanding and sometimes even opposed to a Christ-like walk. The result is fewer Christian business leaders and an accelerated decline of morality in America.
Businesses value what sells. It’s how they succeed. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
Unfortunately though, when you combine business leaders who don’t live by Christian values with a primary goal of making money, one result is that our input sources become flooded with content that appeal to our fleshly desires. Because it works. Sex, immodesty, violence, lust, power, greed, ambition, foul language, etc—it all sells.
When people are bombarded with this type of content, it becomes what we think about.
And what we think about impacts what we say and do.
What we think, say and do determines our character.
Evil thoughts lead to evil speech and actions, which in turn creates evil character, leading us further from GOD and disinterested in following Jesus.
And today, the lure of the bright lights, catchy beats, attractive sights, promise of success and riches is quite successful.
Bad Role Models
When we combine the erosion of the family (specifically, fathers who set poor examples) with the inundation of Americans’ input sources (e.g., movies, sports, music), a related trend arises, which is that kids look up to individuals who do not live by or promote Christian values.
Many of America’s top musicians, athletes and actors / actresses are very immoral and promote sinful lifestyles that negatively influence kids (and adults).
From my perspective, this is especially noticeable in the hip hop community where violence, sex, lust, hatred and disrespect for authority are among the most common themes. This hugely popular negative influence exerts a perpetual, oppressive destructive force on the African American community among whom hip hop is particularly popular.
Kids are invariably going to be introduced to a lot of potentially harmful stuff as they grow up. The presence of strong role models and positive examples in their lives can offset or counterbalance negative influences. Without these positive examples, however, kids often head down a dangerous and destructive road that leads away from Jesus.
I saw this play out in my own life.
As a teenager in the ‘90s, I grew to love the rock band Nirvana. I thought quite highly of Kurt Cobain and felt a strong emotional connection to many of his lyrics. I enjoyed their style of music with that grungy, melodic blend of guitar riffs and Dave Grohl pounding mercilessly on the drums. Honestly, I still do.
I wanted to know more about Kurt, so I read a couple of his biographies. I knew that Kurt had struggled with a heroin addiction and his death had been ruled a suicide, but not much more. The more I learned about him, the more I empathized with his struggles and, at the same time, the more disappointed in him I was. He was not a good role model, and yet so many kids looked up to him.
I am so thankful I had numerous strong positive influences in my life in those critical years. Otherwise, my love of guitar and rock-n-roll combined with the allure of the “rock-n-roll lifestyle” might have led me down a much darker path, and away from GOD.
Pressure to Embrace the World's Narrative
Frank Viola wrote an interesting article in July 2015 entitled “How to Respond to the World’s Narrative.” In this piece, Frank stated that the world system of our day has effectively promoted two myths to the point that they are generally accepted in Western culture:
- If you love someone, you must accept everything they practice and believe.
- If you believe that a certain lifestyle is immoral, this means you hate the individuals who practice those lifestyles.
I think Frank is absolutely correct on these two points.
In America today, the pressure to be politically correct is intense. Every single day it feels like some group of people is complaining about being offended. This includes those claiming to be Christians.
I can’t imagine there being a thinner-skinned nation in the world.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love America—that’s why I’m writing this. And Americans can be tough. We used to be known as a tough nation, and in some ways, such as military force and resilience after disaster, we still are (for now).
But we are the whiniest bunch of pansies when it comes to what people say about us. Every day, some business, politician or celebrity is in the news or trending on social media (there’s our input sources popping up again, by the way) because they said something somebody didn’t like.
Even individuals whose job it is to offer their opinion and stir debate, like sports radio personalities, get fired these days because they offended somebody.
It’s absolutely gotten ridiculous.
But so many Americans have bought into this “Hey I’m offended!” mentality.
Sadly, history shows that the popular opinions of Christendom trail that of a society by at most one generation. In other words, what is accepted by a culture will soon be widely accepted by those claiming to follow Jesus. Because many who profess to follow Jesus don’t realize that they can’t have Him and the world.
For example, whereas thirty years ago, American churches were almost universally opposed to sins such as homosexuality, today it seems every week some denomination is battling over the issue, with more and more bowing to the wisdom of this age.
We could point to the battles of decades past, such as premarital sex, divorce-without-adultery, gender roles in family and church, and biblical modesty—battles that, in many cases, have been foregone conclusions for so long that no one remembers they were ever controversial. But that’s just it. It really hasn’t been that long—less than a century.
Yes, the pressure to conform to—to be “tolerant” of—the world’s narrative is great in America today. And it’s working. Fewer and fewer individuals are standing firm upon the Scriptures against this mounting tidal wave with each passing year.
History shows us that religious zeal within a society ebbs and flows. The reduced interest in Christianity that we are seeing in America today is certainly not unprecedented.
Yet one side effect of America’s current dip in religious interest is what I call “the keep-it-to-yourself mentality.”
“Have your faith, just don’t talk to me about it.”
Most Americans are familiar with the story of Jesus. They know that Christians believe Jesus is the Son of GOD who lived a perfect sinless life and died upon the cross to forgive their sins.
(We must note that there is an enormous difference in knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus, however.)
Whatever the reasons, many Americans today are very disinterested in discussing religious beliefs.
This is inconsistent with authentic Christianity. For Jesus commanded His followers to teach and make disciples of all nations (see Matt. 28:18-20).
Likewise, Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. True love is willing to risk damaging a relationship in order to do what is best for the loved one.
Too many of us Christians have been quiet for too long. We have often watched passively as friends, loved ones—even enemies—traveled the path that leads to destruction.
True love speaks up.
Side Effects of Increased Education
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Americans’ education has increased between 1990-2014.
As of 2014, 91% of Americans have at least a high school (or equivalent) education. 34% of Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
In recent decades, American schools and universities have often embraced as fact and forced into curriculum various teachings that conflict with the Bible and Christian values. Examples include inter-species evolution, big bang theory as the origin of life, aspects of sex education and “alternative lifestyle” doctrines.
The increase of these non-biblical (or anti-biblical) teachings in schools and universities combined with reduced or non-existent pro-Christian / pro-Bible teaching (due to previously-discussed factors) has resulted in more young people embracing these anti-Christian beliefs as fact.
Even for kids who have pro-Christian teaching in their youth, they face the challenge of standing up for their faith against the popular belief of the day and teachers who are in positions of influence and authority—set up by their positions as being experts to impart knowledge and wisdom. For a young impressionable mind, these are formidable opponents. And many kids succumb to the wisdom of this age.
And once a person embraces one belief that is contrary to Scripture, how then can they trust any of the Bible as true or divine? Any faith in a literal interpretation of the Bible crumbles.
Knowledge Tends to Breed Pride
Another related side effect of increased education is increased pride. (Here, I’m referring to that form of pride whereby one thinks too highly of their accomplishments.)
It is good to feel satisfaction over and even celebrate our accomplishments. When unchecked, however, we elevate ourselves too highly and become arrogant.
Nobody likes a self-absorbed arrogant person. In fact, if we’re being totally honest, we sometimes fight the urge to punch them in the face.
A wise person realizes the more they learn, the more they don’t know.
But it is very difficult for a highly-educated person to remain humble.
12 “I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence;
I possess knowledge and discretion.
13 To fear the Lord is to hate evil;
I hate pride and arrogance,
evil behavior and perverse speech.
(Prov. 8:12-13 NIV)
Education opens doors of opportunity. Opportunity leads to increased prosperity. Prosperity tends to lead to arrogant pride. Arrogant pride tends to lead to self-reliance. Self-reliance ignores one’s need for GOD.
“Look what I’ve accomplished. I did this, all by myself. Me.”
We forget the One who gave us the ability to succeed and sustains our very life and breath.
Without the continual reinforcement of Christian principles including humility, service and giving to others, we become self-centered and self-absorbed.
Self-centered people put their wants and wishes first and often don’t sincerely care what happens to others. Self-centered people are greedy.
Impact on American Youth
These factors in American education blend together to foster humanistic thinking. Because GOD is indirectly (and sometimes directly) dismissed as an optional imaginary idea, the highest pursuit of the American educational system has become the furtherance of human causes and solving the problems of this life.
And when this life is all one has to live for, why not “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
Thus, this mindset results in so many American youth pursuing whatever whims suit their fancy. No definitive right and wrong, just whatever the law of the land says so as to avoid negative judicial consequences.
And this leads to decreased respect for authority (parental or societal), national morality and the pursuit of all manner of activities which are inconsistent with or opposed to Christianity.
This is a very real instance of the proverbial slippery slope. Because none of this provides true meaning or promotes qualities and values that strengthen a society and promote peace.
Sadly, many won’t believe it because we can’t see that far ahead. It’s like envisioning a chess game 8, 9, 10+ moves into the future. To fully grasp the consequences that far ahead is beyond human reasoning.
Side Effects of Prosperity
With the increased education of a nation comes increased prosperity. According to the Economic Policy Institute:
Overwhelmingly, high-wage states are states with a well-educated workforce. There is a clear and strong correlation between the educational attainment of a state’s workforce and median wages in the state.
As with increases in national education, increases in prosperity are wonderful, but they also come with some unfortunate side effects we must guard against.
One factor contributing to increased American prosperity has been the rise of dual-income families.
According to Pew Research Center, in 1960 only 25% of U.S. married couples with children under 18 were two-income families. By 2012, that number had risen to 60%.
More families with both parents in the workforce means more kids are spending significant portions of their time away from home and/or parental oversight.
Reduced parental time and instruction during formative years can hinder the child’s development and discipline, leading to increased problems down the road.
The challenge of parental availability certainly isn’t limited to dual-income families, however.
High Job Demands
Regardless of how many income earners are in a household, individual career demands can be very time-consuming and draining. And some people have to work multiple jobs just to get by.
Regardless of the reasons, families that spend too little quality time together hinder the promotion of Christian values and beliefs and slow the personal growth of its members—kids and parents alike.
Rest assured, though, children will be taught by someone, whether parents, friends, television, social media or the gang on the street corner.
Desire for More Stuff
In certain situations, a desire for more money or material possessions can be problematic for Americans. While there is nothing wrong with having money or material things, when we elevate them to too high a priority, other more important life aspects suffer.
It can be very challenging to balance life’s responsibilities. And all parents want to provide the best they can for their family. As a parent of two living in a city with unhealthy public schools, I certainly get it. We’re stretching to put our kids through private school not because we want “more” but because we feel it’s the best option we face.
But sometimes we can get our priorities out of line. We can push to work more than is healthy, sacrificing family time. We can unnecessarily go into debt which then forces us into working harder/more to pay off the debt. We can pursue a dream job which requires us to compromise our values. We can see our neighbor achieving a certain amount of stuff—bigger house, nicer cars, boats, vacations, etc.—and feel the need to keep pace.
Too Many Lazy People
America also carries a heavy burden of individuals who are lazy and won’t work even though they can. They do this because the prosperity of the rest carries their burden.
(Let me be clear. There are many Americans who are genuinely disabled and need help. I am not talking about them and I am for helping people who need help.)
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 52 million Americans (21% of the U.S. population) received government assistance throughout 2012. That’s a lot of people. Nearly 40% of these were children under 18. Twenty-nine percent of American adults 18 and older received assistance.
If we use this 29% as an estimate and assume that ⅓ of these adults was able to work, that’s 25 million people (10% of the U.S.). That’s a lot of mouths to feed.
The Bible is very clear that those who can work should (see 2 Thess. 3:10) and that those who don’t work often fall into gossip and being busybodies up to no good (see 2 Thess. 3:11; 1 Tim. 5:13). Soap operas and daytime talk shows, anyone?
Moreover, lazy parents create lazy children, exacerbating the burden on society.
Christianity and laziness are opposed to one another.
Attitude of Entitlement
Another unfortunate side effect of prosperity is an increased attitude of entitlement—a feeling that the world owes us something just because we exist.
Examples could include having a poor work ethic due to feeling underpaid or believing one is “due” a promotion solely because they have seniority over their coworkers.
The harsh reality is that the world doesn’t work this way.
Over time, an attitude of entitlement often leads to bitterness (as we don’t get what we feel we’re owed) and the longer we hold feelings of bitterness, the further we drift from Jesus.
One evidence of an entitlement mentality is frivolous lawsuits with ridiculous settlements. It seems like every week I hear of a new instance of this. You know what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the person who gets rear-ended at 25-mph, gets out of their car to inspect the (non-existent) damage—visibly unharmed, says everything is fine initially but then the next day they’re calling your insurance company claiming some ridiculous medical condition that will take months to recover from.
The seemingly frequent and unreasonable success and payouts of litigants has not helped curtail this attitude. Instead, it seems to have fueled it. Now you can’t even drive 10 miles on the highway without passing a billboard advertising some form of legal services or litigation.
When individuals become “entitled,” they become self-absorbed. It is impossible to serve others when we are focused on ourselves. Christianity is opposed to self-centeredness. The two cannot continue to coexist within the same person.