In his new book, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and the World, Glenn Stanton has good news about the Good News. Stanton, who works for Focus on the Family and is a senior contributor to The Federalist, argues that the demise of Christianity is greatly exaggerated: It is flourishing around the world and remains robust in the United States.
This book is meant to encourage theologically conservative American Christians who may be hearing from alarmist “Chicken Littles” that the church is dying. Stanton recently presented part of his claims here at the Federalist, but the book contains much more. He asserts that globally, the Christian church is bursting with new believers and vibrant communities. From Africa to China, Christianity is expanding, even under repressive regimes.
Nor is the church dying out in America as it has in much of Europe. True, modernist or liberal churches are in steep decline, but theologically orthodox churches are doing well. Furthermore, the much-hyped rise of the “Nones” (i.e., those who report no religious affiliation) is mostly a result of people who formerly identified as nominal Christians—the sort who might show up to church for Christmas and Easter—now admitting their lack of real religious affiliation. Stanton also argues that Christian young people are not “leaving the church in droves” and that raising children who will adhere to the faith is easier than pessimists claim.
Protestants vs. Evangelicals
Stanton focuses on Protestants. He explains that the dynamics of the Catholic Church, with liberals and conservatives intermingled in the same ecclesiological structure, make it more difficult to evaluate.
Thus, the picture he presents of American Christianity is of the ailing Protestant mainline shrinking while conservative evangelicalism holds steady or even grows. There is not much kick in the watered-down milk feeding the flock at liberal churches. After all, what is the point of going to a church that denies the resurrection and divinity of Christ, or is agnostic about our hope of heaven?
As Stanton observes, skipping this kind of church for brunch would be more uplifting—and many are doing just that. Meanwhile, quite a few people who were only nominally Christian now report no religious affiliation.
But while the lukewarm are leaving church behind, theologically conservative churches and denominations are generally holding steady or even growing. This will not surprise those who have been paying attention to the data on religious identification and attendance, but this will be an encouraging book for those who had accepted the alarmist narrative about Christian decline and the inevitability of secularization.
This book is meant for the lay reader. It cites some academic work, but it is written in a chatty, upbeat style calls to mind a well-caffeinated conference speaker charging through a morning presentation.
Stanton is convincing in arguing that the global church is flourishing and that the American church is not about to expire. He is correct that God guarantees that the church will endure, and that raising children in the faith is not an impossible task. That said, his casual treatment of these subjects is sometimes superficial or offhand, and there are unfortunate omissions that might have been addressed while still keeping this book brief.
Even if, as Stanton contends, religious decline in America is due to liberal denominations shrinking and the nominally religious being more honest about their lack of serious faith, the decline of religious attendance and affiliation is still a challenge to believers. We may be facing a time of clarification rather than extinction, but Stanton does not consider how Christians should prepare for such clarification. While this book comes with a message of hope that is needed by some, it would have been even better had he considered how the American Christians that are his audience should prepare for the difficulties to come.
The decline of theologically liberal churches, along with the drifting of many people from even nominal Christianity, may clarify Christian orthodoxy, but it also means the loss of a shared moral language in our culture. Long-gone are the days when orthodox Christians could imagine themselves a moral majority. Now leaders in culture, business, and politics view orthodox Christianity as alien and oppressive, and seek to crush its adherents (e.g., the obsession with punishing dissident bakers and florists, and with making elderly nuns pay for birth control).
Persevering Through Persecution
We find ourselves choosing between quitting the public square, accepting defeat, or making unsavory alliances in exchange for political protection. These deals may be worth it, but there will be a price to pay, especially if we succumb to the temptations to flatter the egos and excuse the sins of our political allies. Furthermore, the increasing identification of Christians with one political party may hinder evangelization over non-essential differences.
Of course, the “clarifying” that Stanton perceives will also have opportunities for the church. Christian teaching and testimony may shine brighter as compromised or nominal versions of the faith fade. And we should take comfort in knowing our final end, even in times of trouble.
God will always preserve his church, but it will often persevere through persecution. While we should hope for peace and freedom to live and preach the gospel, we are also promised that we will have much trouble in this world. We should prepare for this with good cheer, secure in the knowledge that ultimately, all shall be well.