It’s been a while since I made any predictions for an upcoming new year on this blog. The term “prophetic” relates much less to predicting the future, at least from my perspective, than it does to proclamation. Generally, there are individuals who are able to take facts, and basic information, and help others interpret them in a meaningful and relevant way. Likewise, from a Christian perspective, I see people with a prophetic gift as those who can take the word of God that has already been given to us in written form, and then discern the applicable principles from the text, sort of like translating something from another language, helping others to see what the text means and how it applies to their life. I can do that, to a certain extent, or at least, I’ve been told that I can but in my case, I have a lot of formal education in the art of teaching, and in the fundamentals and principles of education, and a lot of experience trying to get it right from day to day. I have no supernatural ability to know what will happen tomorrow, next year, next decade. I believe that comes from God alone, that it was a rare gift associated almost exclusively with the Jewish people, and I doubt that anyone in the world today is genuinely and supernaturally gifted in this way. From a spiritual perspective, it’s not necessary, since we have the word of God in written form, and a record of the word who became flesh, in Jesus.
It does not take supernatural ability to objectively observe what is happening in the world around you, however, and see where things are headed. We can take the limited observations of our own experience, put them together with other experiences that lead us to a broader observation, and while we may not be able to make an exact prediction of future events, we can surmise potential results if the variables that we’ve observed do not change.
Though it probably didn’t originate with him, one of my college professors, teaching a course in New Testament theology, made the observation that the society in our country is always just one generation away from paganism. He was emphasizing the fact that Christian faith must be understood, and a conversion experience must occur in each individual. He was also underlining the importance of evangelistic activity of the Christian church, not only in making sure that the children of believers experience genuine conversion, but that the unconverted must also be the subject of preaching and teaching which leads them to a conversion experience. It has been my observation, over the 56 years of life that I’ve experienced, most of it in direct association with some local Christian church body, and about 35 years of it as a professing, converted Christ-follower, that our society is closer to the kind of secular paganism my professor referred to than it ever has been. We are already at a point where most children are growing up in families without any generational exposure to Christian faith. I think the transition to a post-Christian society in America will come much more quickly than we realize. And I’ll share the observations that bring me to that conclusion.
Church membership, according to several sources that provide this kind of information, including Barna, and the US Census Bureau, has dropped below 50% of the total population of the US. When you consider that most churches and denominations are very poor record keepers, and that many denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention being one, can’t find or point to almost a third of their total membership, and that less than half of their membership actually attends a church service or event during the course of a year, and the number of people who can actually be considered as professing, practicing Christians falls to about 25% of the population. That figure is consistent with what the census bureau reports.
When you observe the demographics of the active church membership, the picture becomes clearer. The percentage of Americans past 65 who attend church is highest, of course, and that age group now represents more than half of those who are active and involved in a local church, with the figure being as high as two thirds of some denominations. As you come down in age, the percentage of individuals in the churches drops off sharply. A generation, those between 21 and 35 years of age, is, for all intents and purposes, almost completely missing. The figure is somewhere between 6% and 15% of Americans of that age involved enough to indicate regular attendance at worship services.
As one who is involved in Christian school education, I am concerned that the number of pre-school children, school aged children and teenagers involved in church is also beginning to show significant drops. Several of the country’s major Christian publishing houses have reported a 25 to 35% drop in sales of literature produced for this age group, and while part of that is due to the culture change away from using denominationally produced Sunday School literature, much of it is also based on a drop in the number of those in that age group who are enrolled and attending Christian discipleship groups and classes. That’s because an increasing number of younger adults, and younger families, are not involved in church.
I have about 70 churches and pastors on my contact list at the Christian school where I serve as administrator. This list represents churches from which our students have come over the past decade. Many of the churches, which once had 10, 12, 15 children and youth from their congregation enrolled in our school now report that they no longer have any families with school aged children among their membership. I’ve visited in about two dozen of these churches over the past three and a half years, and even among the larger congregations, a couple of which would qualify as mega churches, the percentage of people who look to be under 35 is an astonishingly small number. Look around your own church, and be realistic when you guess what percentage of the membership falls into a particular age bracket.
The collective ministry of American Christians is also seeing a decline in the funding available for missions, and a wide variety of Christian social ministries. Churches are tightening their belts, the number of full time, vocational ministers called by churches has been dropping for years, in many cases in favor of bi-vocational or part time associates, and in some cases, utilizing the work of volunteers. Those are good things in some ways, because they demonstrate that the church is adapting to the changes which are occurring. But so far, it doesn’t seem that anyone has found an answer to increasing evangelistic efforts, and reversing the trend by seeing more people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus. Fewer than 10% of American churches are classified as “growing,” and of those, the vast majority are mega churches which grow by what they offer to attract people out of smaller churches that offer less, and not by winning lots of people to Christ.
What will our society look like in the future, with less than 10% of the population claiming faith in Christ? And what can be done to reverse the decline that has been going on since the 1970’s?