Looking for the best way to support the church in America, one private Christian foundation analyzed nearly every major study of religious affiliation conducted over the past decade.
“Each had its own methods and questions, but the data was surprisingly consistent,” Pinetops Foundation board member Joshua Crossman said.
The consistency might have been surprising, but the results weren’t. Over the past 50 years, attendance and membership at American churches has been declining. About 15 years ago, that curve sharpened.
Pinetops matched the decline to variables like fertility, mortality, and immigration, then ran projections for the next 30 years.
“As near as we could find, this is one of the first [projections of this kind] done,” Crossman said. The predictable results: more decline. The scenario Pinetops found most likely was one that kept today’s rate of disaffiliation. (They also ran the numbers for a rising disaffiliation rate and a shrinking one.)
“Between 28 million [better-case scenario] and 42 million [worse-case scenario] young people being raised in self-identified Christian homes will choose to leave a life with Christ over the next 30 years,” Crossman told TGC. “That’s the largest single generational loss in our country’s history.”
But he’s not discouraged, and neither is Pinetops. In fact, the report is titled The Great Opportunity.
“The good news is if we can return to evangelism and retention rates we saw with Gen Xers 15 to 20 years ago, we could see 20 million young people—who would otherwise leave a life with Christ—stay with Jesus,” he said. “That’s more than every revival in America and every Billy Graham crusade combined. It’s the single largest gospel opportunity in the history of America.”
Pinetops wants to help that happen. The report dug into five high-impact areas that would benefit from a doubling-down. Crossman explained the potential.
What’s the best way we can respond to the decline of Christians in America? Is anybody doing it already?
We need to seek God, fast, repent where needed, and always start with prayer.
As a funder, we look for places we can invest and action we can take. We came into the study thinking maybe we’d find some digital stuff or some care for the poor we could do. Church planting wasn’t even on our radar.
But as part of the analysis, we asked, “How are we doing on per capita church attendance?” When we pulled that thread, we quickly found that we plant 4,000 churches a year but close about 3,700—not enough to keep up with population growth. Since many churches have a lifespan of about 70 to 100 years, and since many of the Baby Boomer churches were planted in the early 1950s, we expect a significant wave of church closures in the near future. Church planting is near an all-time low on a per-capita basis; we need to double to triple church planting within the next five to ten years to meet the need.
If every church gave $3,000 a year, we’d have enough to plant every church we’d need for the next 30 years.
But we also found that new churches are the most effective at reaching the lost. About 40 percent of their members were previously unaffiliated.
Take a place like Boston, historically one of America’s least-churched cities. The Southern Baptist Convention and other churches made a significant effort to target the city with planting, and over the last 10 years we’re seeing church attendance rise. We also see this in midtown Manhattan with Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian, Jon Tyson at Church of the City, and others. Only 2 percent of midtown Manhattan went to church in the 1990s; now it’s at 5 percent or 6 percent.
It’s well within the financial resources and capacity of existing church networks—if they were to prioritize it—to double or even triple church planting. If every church gave $3,000 a year, we’d have enough to plant every church we’d need for the next 30 years. The wealth and funding flows are certainly within the existing funding structure and giving flows of American Christianity.
So we can afford to do it—but do we have the will? How can we plant more? How can we help Acts 29 or the Send Network or others like them dramatically scale their capacity for both recruiting and equipping young people?
Good question—because the younger the generation, the more likely they are to abandon Christianity. Why are they doing that? How can we change their minds?
It turns out that the vast majority of young people leaving the church have not done a deep intellectual study of truth claims and come up with a theological dissent with Christianity. Most simply think a life with Jesus doesn’t matter.
They don’t know our historic beliefs, and we haven’t done a good job of instructing them, introducing them to the person and call of Christ. Most seem to think Jesus’s role in their life is to make them better people and to help them live better lives. And if you think that, when you get into your 20s and 30s and life gets busier, church becomes irrelevant, and you attend less.
So we need to re-engage with those leaving, helping them meet Christ and understand what a life with him really means. Lots of data—and Scripture—supports this simple truth: When we teach the historic beliefs of the faith and challenge young people to live them and share them, they do!
Lots of data—and Scripture—supports this simple truth: When we teach the historic beliefs of the faith and challenge young people to live them and share them, they do.
So how can we pull families into engaging more in transmitting their faith? There’s nothing wrong with dropping the kids off at youth group for an hour on Friday night, but that’s insufficient. We must call parents and children to be on mission together. We want to encourage the church to lead families into a corporate mission with Jesus.
Individual churches and organizations are doing this. Kara Powell and Fuller Youth Institute are doing good work with Sticky Faith and Growing Young. Alpha has done extraordinary work with their youth series. Axis.org is doing some interesting stuff around youth formation to try to help families engage.
But ultimately, it’s going to take pastors and communities of faith. All the studies found that the most important influencers in a person’s faith are their parents. Second most important are other adults. (Far less important are their peers.) Does every young person in your church have three to four adults taking their faith seriously and asking them how they’re doing in their faith?
One turn-off for young people is that the church has an image problem. What’s the misconception? How have we dropped the ball here, and how can we pick it up again?
Young people definitely look at the reputational issues of the church and say, “I’m not interested in being part of that,” but generally speaking the data suggest that’s not the primary reason they disaffiliate.
All the studies found that the most important influencers in a person’s faith are their parents. Second most important are other adults. (Far less important are their peers.)
That said, if we want to have a witness in the public square and engage with those who have chosen to leave, what we talk about and do is important. For the first time in history of our country, a majority of the unaffiliated say the church doesn’t add any value to society. That’s extraordinary, because the church adds more than $1.2 trillion in social benefits alone to American society each year.
While politics is important, and issues matter, our perspective is that they should not be the dominant narrative and witness around the church.
Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” For the last 2,000 years, the church has had a great legacy of giving to those who can give nothing in return. That’s a witness to Christ—when we had nothing, Christ came and gave everything he had for our good.
So we can do more on that front. The average weekly church attender only gives 2 percent to 3 percent of his or her income. We know there is a lot we can do to inspire giving. We can do a better job of letting that generosity be the dominant witness.
If the church could be famous for caring for the poor during Roman-era persecution, we could certainly do it now.
The report points out another way to “articulate the gospel in our culture,” by developing networks of Christian thought leaders. Why don’t we have those networks already? How can we build them?
A recent survey of the top 40 academic institutions in our country pegged 2 percent to 3 percent of the faculty as Christian.
The biggest reason: we’ve not invested in the life of the mind like we once did. Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Stanford, and many others had a religious dimension as a core part of their founding. When the church encouraged people to love God with their minds and to pursue the academy as a vocation, it made a tremendous difference.
As technology and culture evolve, we will need thoughtful responses and deep thinking. We need to build the bench now.
We also need to invest back into secular institutions to make sure the church benefits from a rigorous pursuit of academic truth. There are Christians in every academic discipline at top universities, and there is no reason we can’t continue to support them. We also need future scholars to work with the same rigor and discipline. Imagine what it would mean to have 50 Mark Nolls in history or Alvin Plantingas in philosophy.
This isn’t about “taking back the university.” That’s an “us vs. them” mentality that’s a bit misguided. Instead, we think that when Christians love God with their minds and pursue truth with their whole hearts, good things happen—because all truth is Christ’s truth.
The most exciting thing is that the church has done all of this—planted churches, discipled youth, gained a reputation for serving the poor, encouraged scholarship—before. We know what to do. We just need to have the will and focus to do it.