By Benjie Shaw,
BCM Director, University Of Tennessee Health Science Center
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: America’s religious landscape has undergone large shifts in the last 20 years. In September, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released its latest study, titled “America’s Changing Religious Identity.” In short, the PRRI study discovered:
- White Evangelical Protestants (WEPs), who as recently as 1971 accounted for 55 percent of the American population, now account for 30 percent.
- WEPs are shrinking as a population share. In 2006, 23 percent of the country identified as WEP. Now, less than 17 percent do.
- WEPs are the oldest religious group in the country. While 42 percent of Muslims and 34 percent of the religiously unaffiliated are under 30, only 11 percent of WEPs are under 30.
- The religiously unaffiliated, which includes atheists, agnostics, and “nones,” have tripled in size in the last 20 years, growing from 8 to 24 percent of the total population. In the same time, WEP’s numbers have declined by 15 percent.
- Nearly 75 percent of WEPs do not have children under the age of 17 at home.
- Minority Evangelical Protestants (MEPs) now account for 15 percent of the total population, almost the same percentage as WEPs at 17 percent.
Our new cultural reality presents challenges for Christians that are well documented. Instead of lamenting our loss of status or the difficulties presented by the seismic shifts in our culture, I prefer to consider the opportunities for ministry, renewed vision, and partnership that are now before us.
In many ways, 21st century North American Christianity finds itself in a similar position to the cultural reality of the early church. We do not enjoy political status or power, we are misunderstood and ridiculed by popular culture, our sexual ethic is in radical contrast with the culture’s, and we are an increasingly diverse group. Our current situation provides us with three opportunities to more effectively proclaim the gospel.
(1) A renewed emphasis on the gospel above all else. The PRRI study found that the clear majority of WEPs are affiliated with the Republican party. In contrast, most MEPs are not. Similarly, younger evangelicals of all ethnicities are increasingly critical of the church’s party affiliation over “cause advocacy” — the church’s effort to change society through politics as compared to advocating and becoming personally involved in issues such as poverty and education. Since WEPs, MEPs, and younger people considered here are all evangelical Protestants, they all agree on the primacy, relevance, and importance of the gospel. The evangelical church would be wise to emphasize true gospel issues both for unity in mission and for effectiveness in reaching the lost. We simply can no longer afford even the appearance of Jesus plus politics given the rapidly increasing rates of lostness surrounding us.
(2) An example of true racial reconciliation in turbulent racial times. The early church was the most ethnically diverse institution in the Roman empire. In the church, Jews, Romans, Ethiopians, and Greeks found brotherhood and ways to live their lives together in their pursuit of Christ. It wasn’t easy and it didn’t come without problems, but they found brotherhood in the unity of the gospel. They understood that part of their reconciliation with God through Jesus meant being reconciled to one another as part of Christ’s body. While many Evangelicals pat ourselves on the back for the increasing minority percentage of our denominational bodies, the reality is that much of this increase has come by adding churches that are predominately minority ethnicities to the denomination without much interaction between ethnicities. White churches stay white churches. African-American churches stay African-American churches. Hispanic churches stay Hispanic. And no one grows from the experience.
All of us must do better at finding ways to cross racial, ethnic, and cultural boundaries with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Shame on all of us if we cannot find common ground in Christ as an example of true racial reconciliation to a world in a desperate search for answers on the questions of race.
(3) A decrease in the emphasis on family ministry. The traditional nuclear family is nowhere near as predominant as it once was. I join many in lamenting this reality, but my lament does not change that it is the reality. Young people, even young evangelical Protestants, are delaying marriage and having children almost a decade later than previous generations. Yet many of our church programs move people from youth group to college ministry to a young marrieds group. When we make family ministry the central focus of our church, we are essentially telling young adults that after high school or college we don’t have much for them until they’re married and ready to have kids. In doing so, we lose many 20-30 year olds who are already in church and we certainly are not gaining any ground on those who are not. Family ministry is certainly important and the church should find ways to serve families well. But to be the most evangelistically effective, family ministry cannot be the center around which everything else spins.
In changing times, Christ’s gospel should be our priority; His Kingdom should be our focus. Changing times present new and renewed opportunities for gospel advancement and for the church.