Christian shrinkage. Is that bad news or good news? Well, it depends, it seems.

The Pew Research Center’s new study shows that the proportion of Americans who identify as Christian has declined by nearly 8 percent since 2007. That’s significant and historical. And the decline is felt across all Christian sectors–Catholic, mainline Protestant, and evangelical Protestant.

What’s more, those who identify with no religion have increased by almost 7 percent. They now occupy nearly 23 percent of the general population, and 36 percent of the younger population.

You’d think this news would concern those who care about the American church. But some denominational officials have actually been feverishly trying to put a happy face on the Pew report. Take a look at some of the quotes from these writers over the past week:

  • “It is good news for the church.”
  • “Christianity isn’t normal anymore, and that’s good news.”
  • “Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified.”
  • “Americans whose Christianity was nominal—in name only—are casting aside the name. They are now aligning publicly with what they’ve actually not believed all along.”
  • “The numerical decline . . . is more of a purifying bloodletting.”
  • “Fakers who don’t go to church are just giving up the pretense.”
  • “Good riddance to them.”

Some of these church leaders are not only applauding the decline of those who identify as Christian, they’re also denying the slump in actual church attendance. One of them wrote, “Churches aren’t emptying,” while failing to mention that his own large evangelical denomination has seen several straight years of declining attendance and baptisms.

I realize they may not wish to alarm or demoralize the troops. But to deny what is happening in most churches is disingenuous to those who are feeling the pain. To them, it’s akin to politicians who try to sugar-coat a deep national recession and widespread unemployment. It’s insulting to hear “our economy is strong” when the people know better from first-hand experience.

Pelvic autonomy?

So, why are these officials contorting themselves to spin the data? Some are afraid that admitting any erosion might lead to changing the status quo. One of them wrote, “Some will say that the decline in self-identified Christians is a sign that the church should jettison its more unpopular teachings. And in our day, these teachings are almost always those dealing with pelvic autonomy.”

He’s not the first one to resist someone who would challenge him to throw the first stone. Remember, Jesus did not ask the religious leaders to abandon the law. But he did advocate for change. Not in God’s message, but in the religious leaders’ methodology and their arrogance.

Understanding the shifts

The Pew report points to significant, rapid changes in the religious landscape. For those who love the Body of Christ, this is not a time to gloat about “purifying,” or bidding “good riddance” to “nominal” Christians.

One denominational spokesman wrote, “Evangelical Christianity is growing in America.” It is true that the Pew report mentioned that evangelicals, while declining as a percentage of the U.S. public, “probably have grown in absolute numbers as the overall U.S. population has continued to expand.”

Hardly a sign of robust expansion. But it does provoke a question. How can the evangelical population maintain its position while almost all of the evangelical denominations currently report losses? First, look closely at Pew’s actual poll question: “As far as your present religion, what denomination or church, if any, do you identify with most closely?” Notice, the question does not refer to attendance or membership or involvement. It asks which “you identify with most closely.” Respondents may identify with a certain denomination, but not participate in the church’s activities.

So, is this part of the significant shift that the Pew numbers are revealing? This would coincide with the new research just completed by sociologist Josh Packard. Dr. Packard discovered a large and growing multitude of Americans that we now call the Dones. They’re done with church. Many of them were very active in their congregations, but they’re done with the organized church. They’re not done with God. And the evangelicals among them may not be done with identifying with evangelicalism. They’re just done with the institutional church. In his new book Church Refugees, Dr. Packard explains why they left.

Honest answers

Dr. Packard is not a denominational mouthpiece. He’s an actual sociologist and researcher looking for honest answers about America’s shifting religious landscape. He’s talking with the real people who are reflected in the Pew study’s trends.

The church can learn something here. This is a time for soul-searching, and actually talking with the sheep who have wandered from the flock. It’s a time for listening–rather than carelessly guessing why they left. It’s a time for loving the lost sheep–rather than calling them disparaging names. It’s a time to ask how to be more effective and faithful as the Body of Christ, rather than celebrating the shrinkage.