I listened to a Christian commentator rant about the moral decay of the nation and how Christianity “has lost its hold” on our country. He was basing his rant on a report from the Gallup organization that indicates “only” 78% of Americans identify with some form of Christianity this Christmas. He emphatically reminded us that 60 years ago 9-out-of-10 Americans were “good” Christians (as opposed to the 8-out-of-10 so-so Christians today…), and that “devil-worshipping liberals” (like me) were “killing Christmas.” He neglected to report that Gallup also indicates that 93% of Americans celebrate Christmas, even if they don’t call themselves “religious.”
But do these numbers tell us important information or do they mislead and misrepresent? I’ll let you decide, but here are some things to think about:
- in 1948, the U.S. population was approximately 146,500,000. 92% = 134,780,000 Christians celebrating Christmas. The current population in the U.S. is approximately 308,4oo,000. 78% = 240,552,000 Christians celebrating Christmas (286,812,000 Americans celebrating Christmas).
- Gallup reports that 13% of Americans claim “no religious identity.” This category needs some further exploration and unpacking. When the General Board of Discipleship engaged in its Spiritual Seeker Study, we discovered a significant shift occurring that has implications for this statistic. 75% of the people we surveyed who believe in God and Jesus Christ claimed they “subscribe to no religion.” They were part of the cultural segment who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” The category “religious belief” is becoming archaic and less helpful. Comparing someone with “no religious identity” in 1948 — or even 1978 — with someone claiming the same thing in 2009 may be comparing apples to oranges.
- Cultural, societal, and generational mores have changed — my grandfather attended church every week, considered himself religious, and gave a tithe of his income to his church. He also swore like a sailor, made fun of most of the people he went to church with, never read the Bible or prayed, and thought Sunday school was for sissies and momma’s boys. There is almost no way to adjust statistics for honesty or integrity. Church attendance is no great indicator of behavior. I remember an eye-opening interview I did with a woman’s shelter director in Tennessee. She told me that the vast majority of abused women she counseled came out of “good Christian homes” where the husbands were active at church. We need to be careful the assumptions we make when we here someone is “religious” or attends church regularly.
- Why fixate on the 10-15% we don’t have? Eight-out-of-ten Americans claim some form of Christian faith!! 80%!!! We celebrate the church from the Book of Acts — a church that represented 4-6% of the total population in its healthiest locations! What is our problem? If we could get the 80% who say they believe to act like it, we could make this old world a much better place to live.
Christianity in the United States is 400+ years old. The current cultural and educational diversity of this country is a few decades old. The decline of the old in the face of the new is a given — it is just what happens; always has — always will. In my mind, we should marvel that the statistics aren’t a lot worse. Were we honest in our responses and measurement, the number and percentage of “Christians” would be much smaller than it appears — but we have no objective, fair, unbiased metrics by which to judge. The numbers we have aren’t doing us any favors. They make us feel bad, anxious, uncertain, discouraged, and they force us to may uncritical and short-sighted decisions. Let’s focus on what we do have and what we can do with what we’ve got. That makes a lot more sense to me than panicking over problems that may really not exist.
What often gets lost when we play with statistics is that they represent something — in this case, real people. It would be wonderful if we could stop treating people like statistics and start treating statistics like people. It doesn’t matter how many more or less we have today than yesterday. If we are building good, healthy, strong relationships with everyone we have today, we will reach more and more tomorrow. But we won’t reach them because they are our “target demographic.” We will reach them because they are people, worthy of our time, energy, effort, and respect.