Michael Metzger

Glen Stanton of the Federalist Society says new research shows US Christianity is not shrinking but growing and getting stronger. True? Depends on which way you look at it.

New research published late last year by Harvard University reports that Christianity in the US is not contracting but growing. And it’s getting stronger. Researchers drew this conclusion primarily by studying attendance, intensity, and practice.

Attendance: Researchers say evangelical nondenominational churches report attendance growth. Evangelicals in these churches report attending church more than once a week.

Researchers also note a “persistent and exceptional intensity” in how evangelicals practice their faith. They report praying daily and accept the Bible as wholly reliable and deeply instructive to their lives. This is consistent with evangelicalism, which has long been described as “personal, prayerful, relational, and intensifying.”[1]

These are wonderful characteristics. If we only looked in at evangelical churches, we’d say US Christianity is not shrinking, but growing stronger. The Harvard report rings true.

But is it true? Look out—not just in—to the wider world. We might not be so sure.

Take attendance. Evangelical churches are growing. But it’s almost all transfer growth, Christians leaving declining churches (traditional, progressive, liberal). I don’t fault folks for leaving them, but the last time I checked these churches are part of US Christianity. Add to this the fact that, even with transfer growth (and high birth rates), nondenominational churches are declining as a percentage of the US population.

Look again at intensity. If you look out to numerous studies, we see attendance is not as strong as evangelicals self-report. In fact, it is half the professed rate.[2]

Look again at practice. Dallas Willard, who passed away in 2013, noted that evangelical practices (e.g., Bible studies and small groups) are mostly private, done in church or small groups. I’m very happy evangelicals are doing these practices. They’re absolutely necessary. But they’re insufficient for a stronger faith. Older church traditions hold that strength of the faith lies in being a private and public practice.

Public practices included translating the faith for those not in the faith. Collaborating with other faiths. Building institutions. Willard says the faith was “a public resource for living.”[3] Institutions in the wider world—education, business, etc.—saw the faith as an expert on how real life works. The church shaped the institutions shaping our lives.

Do we shape these institutions today? Willard said no. Enlightenment-shaped institutions shape us. “We are dominated by the essentially Enlightenment values that rule American culture,” Willard wrote. The Western church today “lives in a bubble of historical illusion about the meaning of discipleship and the gospel.”[4]

One Enlightenment illusion is self-reporting spiritual maturity. Willard cites Gallup polls on the number of Americans reporting to be born again. He then compares this group with statistics compiled by outside researchers on evangelical behaviors (spending, giving, porn, anxiety, time on social media, and so on). For a group professing to see the Bible as “wholly reliable and deeply instructive,” Willard calls our behaviors “shocking.”

So, back to our original question: is US Christianity growing and getting stronger? Depends on which way you look at it. As you read this, I’m winging my way to the other side of the world. I’m going at the request of an organization. They want an outsider to assess their urban church planting efforts. They’re looking at their work in-n-out.

IN-N-OUT Burger was founded in 1948. It’s slow growth, fresh ingredients, never frozen. IN-N-OUT believes better is better—not bigger is better. Whether you think it’s a healthy business model depends on how you see what makes for a healthy business. The same goes for US Christianity. Whether you think it’s growing or shrinking, getting stronger or weaker, pretty much depends on how you look at it. Do you only look in… or do you look in-n-out?


[1] Laura L. Nash, Believers in Business: Resolving the Tensions Between Christian Faith, Business Ethics, Competition and Our Definitions of Success, (Thomas Nelson, 1994), 26.

[2] John G. Stackhouse, Jr., “Where Religion Matters.” American Outlook. Fall 2002. 40-44.

[3] Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperCollins, 2009), 200.

[4] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperCollins, 1998), 214.


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One Comment

  1. This is one of the most important posts by Mike in some time. Glen Stanton is a friend of mine, but this is nothing other than wishful thinking. The acute aging of the church is evidence that we are not successfully passing on the faith to the coming generation.

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