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The changing demographics of the American church

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In recent years, numerous books and articles have sounded the alarm that “millennials” (people born between 1980 and 2000) are dropping out of church in record numbers. This week Presbyterian News Service published an article by Bob Smietana (“Are Millennials really leaving the church? Yes ― but mostly white Millennials”) that challenges this popular belief. Smietana argues that the decline of church-attending young people is true in certain demographics, but that other demographics are experiencing growth among all ages.

As Exhibit A, Smietana profiles Iglesia de Dios, a Hispanic mega-church in Nashville with approximately 3,000 members. According to the pastor, Josué Rodriguez (27 years old himself), the church’s youth services draw the biggest crowd of all. Smietana also profiled Rev. Derwin Gray, pastor of Transformation Church in Indian Land, South Carolina. Gray told Smietana, “What I see among Millennials are African Americans and Asian Americans and Latinos who are vibrantly growing in faith and leading the future of what the church will become.” Gray’s church has approximately 2,500 people.

1. Recap of recent surveys

Smietana references recent surveys that show surprising demographic shifts both in the culture and the church. Consider the following:

• According to the Public Religion Research Institute, one third of young Americans (18 to 29-year-olds) are “people of color”.
• Only 25% of younger Americans are white Christians, while 70% of older Americans are white Christians.
• 30% of Americans 65 and older are evangelicals, while only 10% of younger Americans are evangelicals.

On one hand, it’s easy to despair that the church is declining so noticeably among some demographics. There is still plenty of reason to be hopeful about the church’s future in America. “The future, says Gray, will belong to churches that are multi-ethnic, because that’s what God wants,” Smietana said. For Gray, the church should be multi-ethnic, not merely because of changing demographics, but rather “because it is at the heart of the gospel.”

This is a message especially poignant for a city like Jackson which, sadly, is lacking in multi-ethnic churches. They do exist (Redeemer Church PCA, for instance), but they are the exception not the rule.

2. Changing demographics in the church are happening worldwide, not just in America

In 2002, Philip Jenkins published his provocative book, The Next Christendom, which forecast that by mid 21st century white Christians would be an anomaly. Jenkins profiled the rapid growth of Christianity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, challenging numerous misled assumptions among Western Christians. For years, mainline denominations in America have felt pressure to “change or die”—to shed much of their historic orthodoxy and adopt a more revisionist version of the faith, a version that is more in line with 21st century sensibilities. Jenkins showed that where church growth is actually happening the most worldwide is among congregations that are very “conservative” in their theology—affirming the historic doctrines of Christ’s Deity, atonement, resurrection, second coming, birth from the Virgin Mary, etc.

Jenkins showed that the demographic shift is not confined to any one denomination. He explained that while Pope John Paul II was unpopular among some American Catholics for being too staunchly conservative, the pope was merely standing up for the convictions of most Catholics worldwide (who do not live in the West).

The Anglican Communion, headquartered in England, is experiencing most of its growth in the Global South. There are more church attending Anglicans in Nigeria today that in England, and there are more church attending Anglicans in Rwanda (a nation about the size of Delaware) than there are Episcopalians in the entire U.S.

3. Conclusion

While it might be easy to think that young whites are leaving the church because the church is too old-fashioned, we must remember that the churches in other parts of the world that are experiencing revival are precisely those that, by American standards, are the most “old-fashioned”. This is not a time for conservative Christians to cave into triumphalism, which is a very real temptation. Churches wrestling with liberalism are made up of men and women for whom Christ died, and even the most orthodox church on the map is not immune from the temptation to compromise truth; we should take heed lest we fall and desire the restoration of those who have erred with sincere love, not condescending smugness.

Of course, it should sadden us when anyone, of any age or background, drops out of church. Smietana’s article is a helpful reminder that we shouldn't despair. The church is still growing and the gospel is still bringing people to Christ.

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