Tuesday, March 30, 2021
It's Tuesday, March 30, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Church Membership Keeps Declining in the United States: What Does The Generational Trend of Secularization Tell Us?
One of the most monumental shifts that has taken place in Western society is described with the word secularization. The word secular in this sense means the decline of belief in God. And with that decline and belief in God comes a decline in church attendance, in religious identification. You can pretty much go down the pattern and figure it out. As I have often discussed on The Briefing, the biggest issue for the society is the loss of a binding understanding of theism, a binding understanding of God that means that we are bound to His laws, bound to His word, bound to truth because He is the author of truth.
But as we're looking at a recent study that has come from the Gallup organization, we are now told that the pattern has reached the point where a minority of Americans identify as members of any religious organization, specifically in the United States. Given the fact that the vast majority of citizens say they believe in God, and the vast majority of them identify as Christians in one way or another in answer to a pollster statement, this is a very significant issue.
Now here's where you might have a secular understanding of these numbers, and we have to compare it to a more theologically-based understanding, and we're going to get to that. But first of all, the numbers. We're looking at 47%. That is to say in the year 2020, according to the Gallup organization that's been doing these studies for a very long time, only 47% of Americans responding to the survey indicated that they have actual formal membership in a church or religious congregation. Now that's to be compared with the fact that if you go back to the 1930s, that number was over 70%.
Now wait just a minute. You're looking at the 1930s. The difference is something close to 70% and something just under 50%, 47%. That's a fall of 20% over the course of what, we just have to admit now, is just a bit less than a hundred years, about 91 years. So, given all the other changes in society, we shouldn't be all that surprised about the fact that you've seen a 20% slide over the course of the last almost century, especially when you consider how much change and how much secularization has taken place over the course of those very crucial decades. But still for Christians, this is a wake-up call just in terms of the statistics about the United States. This tells us that we are now increasingly, when we talk to our neighbors, talking to someone who is not formally identified with any religious congregation.
Several years ago, there was a suggestion that America has several different boundary lines, boundary lines between not only the North and the South, the East and the West, but boundaries between, say, Coke and Pepsi domination, boundaries between Hellman's and Kraft mayonnaise domination. You might have even these days on an interesting conversation about boundaries between Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel. But one of the other boundaries that was suggested years ago is the fact that there is some kind of boundary in the United States where crossing that boundary, going in one direction, you are less likely, and in the other direction, more likely, upon moving to a new community to have your neighbors ask what kind of church do you go to? What church are you looking for?
One author writing from the North said that she knew she was in the South when her neighbors ask her where she had moved from and what her church was. That was not the kind of conversation she had been accustomed to in the North. But this is not just a North South distinction. There is still something to the Bible Belt that shows religious and evangelical church membership concentrations in the area from the Southwest to the Southeast coast. And you're still looking at the fact that geography matters. But this is not basically a geographical issue. But here's what's important, and Christians need to note, it is overwhelmingly a generational issue.
And if you're looking at a comparison with the 1930s, I'm going to suggest as a Christian, this is the most interesting and alarming aspect of the survey. Because you're looking at the fact that every successive generation by the study has been less churched. A smaller percentage has identified with any kind of formal church membership. Just to give some numbers, people born before 1946, of them, 66% belong to a church. When it comes to Baby Boomers, 58%. So, a fall of 8% between the GI generation and then the Baby Boomers. Then 50% of Generation X and 36% of Millennials. Here's what's important. Notice that radical distinction between those born before 1946 and those who are a part of the millennial generation. And here's something else to note, the Millennials are destined to be the biggest generation in American history.
One of the things we often note is that social change, even sociotheological change, tends to take place slowly until it takes place quickly. And the way to look at this is that if you are graphing between, say, those born before 1946 and then the Baby Boomers and then Generation X and you follow them through, the process can look fairly slow. But if you look at generational replacement, well, this is where the picture gets very fast. Because the generation of those passing from the population and the public scene is much more churched, indeed, and by some sense, almost twice as likely to be churched than those who are coming on the scene and increasingly dominating the scene. You could put it another way. Those who are increasingly in retirement are increasingly churched, but those who are entering the workforce are increasingly not.
Now here's where Christians also need to recognize that at least in recent decades, you could say even over the last, say, 200 years, there has been a pattern of those entering young adulthood being less identified with religious belonging or in church membership than older generations. That tended to correct itself over time when young people took on jobs and they got married and they had children. Church membership then, most often, became a part of the equation. That's what's radically different now. When it comes to the millennials, that pattern is not holding. And here's where it's also interesting to note, many of these millennials haven't left, with the big question being if they would come back. Rather looking at these patterns, it's clear that many of them have never had any overt religious congregational identification. They've never considered themselves members of any church.
Looking at the statistics from the Gallup organization, it's also interesting to note something else. We have talked about the rise of the NONES, that's the N-O-N-E-S, the number of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation, no religious identity. According to the Gallup information, that surge in population probably accounts for only half of the falloff in church identification and affiliation.
So, you're looking at an interesting question. What about the other half? Well, the other half would be people who do not say that they are NONES. They might say they're Baptist, Presbyterians, Lutheran, Catholic. You could go down the list. They might say that they are this or that, but they don't belong to any congregation. Now that, given a Christian understanding, tells us that a part of the problem in this research is that you have a self-identification, and that's at virtually every point. So, you have what people say about themselves.
By the way, a little footnote here. One of the things that has been noted, particularly by British sociologists, is that there's a radical distinction between how people answer the question about whether or not they attend church and how often, and how often their church says that they actually attend church. But if half of this increase in the unchurched is due to the NONES, the other half is due to those who do identify in some way, but not seriously enough that they're actually a member of a church.
Now, the sweeping nature of this research is likely to be reported throughout the media. But, of course, we have hundreds of the surveys and polls that are released in the course of a year. I don't talk about them all on The Briefing because the overwhelming majority aren't all that important, or they're telling us something that we already know. This survey from Gallup is a little bit different because even though it does tell us a great deal of what we already knew, it also offers us a bracing reminder of the challenges that evangelical Christians face in the world today. Because a lot of churches tend to think of their community as made up of people who are basically either churched or about to be churched somewhere, when in reality, the majority of Americans aren't in any sense, period.
So, even as the majority of Americans will say, they still will say that they have some kind of religious affiliation, there's nothing tangible to show for it. So, what we're looking at here is further evidence of the secularization of the United States and its population. We're looking at a fundamental change in our society. I was just recently looking at some literature and some products of Hollywood from the mid-point of the last century. And one of the interesting things is that people were shown going to church, talking about church, at least when it came to the big events of life. There was a reference to weddings at church, funerals at church, other kinds of events. By the time you fast forward to recent decades, all of that has virtually disappeared.
What's also interesting is that I was looking recently as some literature that was depicting narratives in the medieval age, and church was also absent from those narratives. But that's what spectacularly wrong. There would have been no secular people in the time of the depiction of these medieval settings. The fact is, the medieval world was profoundly not secular. Secularism wasn't an available worldview at the time. But it's interesting that we have authors writing today who seem to be so secular that they don't even know that previous generations of human beings weren't.
But here I want to step back as a Christian theologian, and yes, as a Baptist, to say, there's something urgently important in this data to remind us that we are not satisfied to find some kind of mild affiliation with Christianity. We don't believe that real, authentic Christianity is ever separated from ecclesiology, from active involvement with Christ's people in a local church. The New Testament knows nothing of unaffiliated Christians. It knows only of existence as Christians within the life of a congregation, within the life of the church. There is no understanding of Christianity apart from church. And here you're looking at the fact that apostolic Christianity, as revealed, for instance, in the book of Acts, would not recognize any claim of Christian identity apart from membership in the church, identity in the church, a deep investment in the church.
So, just to remind ourselves, when it comes to the secularization of the society, it is very dangerous for the society. It puts the society in danger of having no way to answer basic questions about human dignity or human rights or human respect or truth. And you're seeing the results of that confusion in the world around us. But at the same time, looking at this kind of data, it's a reminder of the fact that Christians, if no one else in the world, have to keep our wits about ourselves in defining who is and is not a Christian.
And on that score, it isn't necessarily clear in this data that there are fewer believing Christians in the United States. That's a separate issue and it may well be so. Maybe it's just that people are becoming more honest about the fact that they don't believe anything enough to be a part of any congregation with any kind of membership. Yet another reminder of the challenge that lies before us as biblical Christians driven by the gospel of Jesus Christ. And of course the bottom line in this is that this is good information for local churches to know as we think about local churches reaching communities with the gospel.
Is Unbelief Being Passed on from Generation to Generation in Britain? Observers Claim that the UK is Now Truly Post-Christian
But then we're going to shift across the Atlantic to Britain. The Guardian, a liberal newspaper in London, recently ran an editorial about the paper's view on post-Christian Britain, a reality the paper explained as a spiritual enigma. Now just keep in mind that as we're thinking about Christianity in the United States, and we're looking at the pattern of secularization, that pattern is far more advanced in Britain as it is on the continent of Europe. But in the English speaking world, let's just look at the distinction between Britain and the United States.
Going back a matter of decades, church attendance in Britain began falling off early in the 20th century, and it basically never recovered. According to some recent research, on any given Sunday, less than 2% of the British population attend services of the Church of England which is, after all, the nation state church. The fact is that when you're looking at all the markers of secularization, that means moral liberalization, it means the retreat of any kind of religious claims from the public square, it means basically the isolation of Christian culture from the rest of the culture, Britain has been far ahead. And it was in Britain, as well as in much of Europe, that the term post-Christian came into more common use.
The idea of a post-Christian culture is not a culture in which Christianity is completely disappeared. The point is this and the point is missiological. That is, it has to do with how we understand the gospel task in any cultural setting. You might say that there are then three different distinctive cultures according to this model. There would be the pre-Christian culture, a Christian culture, and a post-Christian culture. Pre and post mean temporal. Something came before something came after. So, post-Christian means after Christianity was dominant in a society.
So, just to take Europe, for example. At one point, Europe was a continent of pagan beliefs, and indeed it was a continent of many different pagan beliefs. Christianity arrived in Europe in the early centuries of the first millennium of Christianity. The culture we know as European culture largely grew out of a culture that had been exposed to Christianity and in which Christianity was increasingly the dominant influence.
So, just to take an arbitrary year, let's say the year 500, you go to the year 2000, you're looking at about 1,500 years of cultural dominance by Christianity within Europe. The laws, the morality, the basic understanding of the cosmos, the understanding of economics and politics and, well, just about everything that related to the society and to the individual, it was all based upon the Christian inheritance. The authority of the church was extremely important. So much so that throughout most of those centuries, the authority of the state depended upon the sanction of the church. But then came the modern age, and then came the late modern age. And increasingly throughout the 20th century, Britain and much of Europe became more and more secular, more and more secularized.
The point of the post-Christian condition. So, just thinking: pre-Christian. Then Christian, which doesn't mean everybody's a believing Christian; it does mean that Christianity is the dominant authority in the worldview. And then post-Christian. The interesting thing about post-Christian, and this is really haunting, is that the people who live in a post-Christian existence basically don't know they are post-Christians. Just like pre-Christians didn't know they were living in a time before the arrival of Christianity, post-Christians increasingly don't recognize that they are inhabiting a civilization that was virtually entirely shaped by Christianity.
The article in The Guardian begins by citing a professor in Britain, Linda Woodhead. She had described those in Britain who are in a "slow, unplanned, and almost unnoticed revolution." And that came down to the fact that Britain was seeing a new cultural majority "emerging with no connection to organized religion." Now that's an interesting way to put it, because it certainly is true that the change was that this new majority had no connection to organized religion. But the reality is, honestly, it wasn't some kind of generic organized religion that disappeared. It was specifically Christianity.
But here's why I'm talking about this particular article. This article in The Guardian suggests that even as during, say, 1,500 years of Christian dominance in European and in Western society, Christianity was passed on from generation to generation. Here's the thing. This research indicates that Britain has now reached a post-Christian condition in which unbelief is being passed on from generation to generation. That's what makes this newsworthy. This kind of report is not just about increasing secularization. It's about generational change over time.
The Guardian comes to this conclusion, "Post-Christian Britain is now a fait accompli." They're saying it's no longer something that is out there on the horizon. It's not just that the current generation of Britains now living is more secular, far less likely to have any Christian identity than generations in the past. It's now that unbelief is successfully being passed on from generation to generation.
It's also interesting to note that on both sides of the Atlantic, you don't see an appreciably large percentage, even of those who don't identify as religious or don't identify as Christian. It's not true that a large percentage of them are particularly strident in their atheism or in their unbelief. This comes down to what's cited in The Guardian editorial as the Dawkins Indicator, a reference to the very strident atheist Richard Dawkins, former professor of science at Oxford University, sometimes referred to as the world's most famous atheist. He is quite strident in his unbelief. But the point that is being made in The Guardian is, most of the people who are not Christians are also not strident about it as is Richard Dawkins.
So, what we're also looking at here is the fact that Christians have an explanation for that. This gets back to the fact that we believe that God having made us in His image has made us in such a way that we cannot not know at the most fundamental level that there is a God. We cannot not know that we are moral creatures. And so, even as there are increasing numbers of people who are living increasingly secular lives, there are limits to that secularism.
Now, in terms of the church's challenged to share the gospel, that is not necessarily encouraging. Because you might be talking to a lot of people who don't even consider the question of God as being of intellectual importance. It might be that they're not even troubled enough to be strident in their unbelief any more than they would have been by contrast faithful in their belief. You can say this about atheists. Atheists and Christians at least agree on the importance of the question of the existence of God.
But before leaving this, I just want to go back to the fact that the biggest issue in this report is the fact that you have people making the open claim that now unbelief is being successfully passed on generation to generation in Britain. And for Christian parents and Christian churches, but at this point particularly for Christian parents, we understand that a part of our responsibility in the very core of our existence is to pass on faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to our children.
New Words, New Moral Reality: How Changes in Language Point to More Fundamental Moral Changes in Society
But finally for The Briefing today, I want to look at another moral indicator in society that tells us about how change is taking place in the fundamental level of morality in our society. A redefinition of terms is often a very clear indication of how this moral change happens. You might look at another three stage process of moral change. Just think of it this way. You have something that is clearly identified and named as sin. Then it is renamed in such a way that it appears far less sinful, far less morally significant, and then it is normalized in the society.
So, just to take one particular example, let's take the issue of extramarital sex. But that's not really what it's called in the Bible. In the Bible it's called adultery. And in our society it was called adultery. It is the violation of the marriage vow. So, in the United States, you start out with a near universal condemnation of adultery, and that is the term that is used. But then the term changes. It is euphemized. It becomes an extramarital affair. It becomes a fling. It becomes just an affair. And before you know it, it's been renamed as something else. And then of course it eventually, having been renamed, becomes more normalized in society. Our society, to put the matter bluntly, makes no strong, consistent, moral judgment about the wrongness of sex outside of marriage, even sex in betrayal of a marriage covenant.
But it's not adultery that I'm thinking about today. Rather, it is other forms of sexual expression. And in this case, I don't want to be too graphic, and I'm not going to be, but there are several headlines in recent news media coverage that tell us we really are in a different world. Number one, we have all the attention to drag queens. And then of course we have drag queen story hour now in public libraries, and there's a debate about just how much of a civilizational crisis that represents. I think a very significant civilizational crisis, as a matter of fact. But now we have Jaden Amos reporting for National Public Radio, "Drag queens are dazzling the internet. These photographers are helping them do it." So, this is an article basically celebrating the contribution of photographers as artists toward the great celebrated art of drag queens.
And so, it's just one of those articles that comes along and you recognize this article wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago. It wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago to have an article about art, basically celebrating the contribution of prominent photographers to the explosion of interest in drag Queens. Amos reports this, "Drag is art. It's an outlet for artistic expression not just for the queens and kings who perform. It's also a way for the designers, makeup artists, hairstylists and photographers working with them behind the scenes to share their artistry, too." So, it's not just photographers. It's also designers, makeup artists, hairstylists and photographers. It's a great big demonstration of cultural ability and of artistic expression.
But of course, what's now unmentionable in the mainstream media is there could be anything wrong about this. But then very similarly, the New York times in Sunday's edition ran an article that was a full page onto another page in the New York Times print edition on burlesque entertainers. Now that is also a euphemism, to be frank, but I'm not going to speak in the language that would be more graphic. The fact is you're talking here about sexually explicit dance. And the article by a duo of reporters for the New York Times tells us, "After a year of isolation, some performers crave the intimacy of a live audience, but still worry. They're worried about the survival of burlesque and of sexually explicit dance expression in an age of COVID."
But there's something else here that's kind of interesting. And that is the fact that these reporters write about burlesque in New York as something that is characteristic of the city's character. It's supposed to be something that New York is proud of. "Burlesque has a rich history in New York beyond the flashy diamonds, pearls and feathers. The format allows performers to combine elements that are usually seen on separate stages. There's room for stripping to meet comedy, for raunchiness to play with tragedy, for the beautiful to face their grotesque, and for the performer to make the audience squirm." So again, virtually two full pages in the print edition of the New York Times to burlesque, and to the danger that burlesque might not return to its pre COVID levels, or at least some of the people in the burlesque industry are worried about that.
But finally on this issue, the New York Times also ran an opinion piece by Elena Shih that was entitled How to Protect Massage Workers. And this is even of greater importance. And of course, this is over against the horrible background of the murderous attack in the Atlanta area that left several massage workers dead, and the vast majority of them, six of the victims being Asian massage workers. It's a complicated crime. But the interesting thing about this article is that the argument is that in order to protect massage workers, one of the most fundamental things that must be done is to remove the stigma from those who are identified as sex workers.
Now, interestingly, this article is written arguing that there is no way to say, and it would be wrong to say, that all of these workers were involved as sex workers. But nonetheless, many sex workers are employed in the massage business. And thus, this becomes the opportunity in the New York Times for this particular writer to say, "The decriminalization of sex work is vital." Now again, notice the language here. "Asian massage workers are universally policed and considered to be involved in the sex industry regardless of whether they are a part of it. Whether the Atlanta victims were sex workers or victims of sex trafficking is irrelevant to the reality of mass surveillance, policing, and constant fear unleashed on all Asian massage workers."
In another paragraph she writes, "The most effective ways to support Asian massage workers is to support the campaigns of grassroots migrant labor and sex workers rights organizations in the United States and globally that know what workers need." Notice the term here, workers need. "Asian massage workers need affordable housing, safe working conditions, a living wage, safe avenues to seek redress, and the ability to organize when their rights are infringed."
I'll stop saying that one of the most morally alarming aspects of this article is that there is, for instance, the suggestion that sex trafficking is of less importance than removing the stigma of the sex worker industry. That's something we just need to know. I think that's a very sad commentary. Because actually the kinds of protections that many people are trying to put in place when it comes to sex trafficking are, she implies, wrong. Instead, the answer, she says, is making such work legitimate and professionalizing it. So yes, you see the common theme in these articles. We're living in a new moral reality, all three of these articles point to that fact, and all three of them, in their own way, point to changes in the language as indications of a far more fundamental change.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.