If you haven't already heard about it second-hand, the Pew Research Center released a report this week that shows fewer people identifying as Christian than in the past here in the United States. You can read it yourself, here: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/. Much has been said about the report by Christians who cite it as further proof that our nation is shambles and only getting worse. However, a closer look might reveal some hope for those of us who hold true to the Church and are invested in seeing that it thrives. My thoughts:
1. For most of the 20th Century, there were people who joined churches in order to fit in. It was a smart thing to do if you had friends, families, neighbors, or coworkers in the Church. Many of these folks didn't necessarily buy in to the doctrine of the church, and frankly, the Church didn't bother too much to teach it to them in many cases. That's all changed in the 21st Century. The rise of non-Christian culture in the U.S. means that, for perhaps the first time in our country, it's comfortable, even in small midwestern towns, to not go to church at all. There is strength and numbers, and no longer do people feel like outsiders for not attending a church. My take is that it's a good thing to have people be honest. I've heard far too many times that it's better to have these people in church, in hopes that maybe it would rub off on them, with no real effort at transformation of this demographic. I disagree. At least now the Church can be honest and recognize that we need to be intentional about explaining what we believe to others who do not believe the same.
2. Churches that uphold the traditional doctrine of the church seem to be faring the best. Surprisingly, this and other studies show that denominations that acquiesce to social pressure, particularly around issues of sexuality, lose members at a far more rapid rate than those who hold firm to the classic teachings of the last 2000 years of church doctrine and history. While we are all well served personally and corporately to be more loving to divorcees, those who cohabitate, and, yes, practicing homosexuals, churches that teach that these are no longer sin, have seen steeper declines in membership recent years. An argument could (should?) be made for other denominations not to follow in their paths for practical reasons, let alone what the New Testament teaches.
3. It's important to remember that on the whole more people around the world are, and will continue to, seek God. It was only a month ago that Pew released a report on religion the world over (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/). The chief idea competing for individual's attention with the Christian faith isn't atheism/agnosticism, it's the Muslim faith. As Christians, we have an opportunity to reach out to and influence those who are seeking God, and help them to find Jesus. This is a much better position than what Western secular media might have us to believe. People all over the world want to know about the God we know, and there is an opportunity to share with them.
Yes, it might take effort to find reasons for optimism in a report subtitled, "Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population," but I think there are indeed reasons to be hopeful right now.