We’re used to hearing that religion is dying in America, secularization is inevitable, and that young people are leaving the faith in droves. But a new Harvard research study has great news for Christians. Previous research typically focuses on the massive increase in the proportion of people who claim atheism or ‘no religion’. But these reports generally don’t address where the decline is happening. This new research demonstrates that the decline is in ‘moderate’ religion. So it turns out that ‘religion’ isn’t dying, but the differentiation between believer and unbeliever is becoming clearer.
Researchers make the distinction between Christians who attend church regularly, read the Bible multiple times a week, and pray frequently, in comparison to those that would claim the Christian label, but not practice church attendance, Bible reading, and prayer. The latter group has declined, like the ‘mainline’ churches that are hemorrhaging members. But the former group has held steady over time, and is even growing. As the abstract of the paper states, “rather than religion fading into irrelevance as the secularization thesis would suggest, intense religion—strong affiliation, very frequent practice, literalism, and evangelicalism—is persistent and, in fact, only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States.”
It is understandable why professing but not believing ‘Christians’ would leave the church in today’s climate. It’s no longer socially advantageous in many circles to have the label Christian. In today’s culture, Christians are not thought of as intellectually sophisticated or tolerant of other lifestyles. The exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way of salvation is seen as bigoted. So if one doesn’t really believe and practice Christianity, it can be easier to just come out as an atheist or a ‘None’.
This study reinforces why some churches and denominations are dying. But a wide variety of denominations are healthy and even growing—and they have one crucial thing in common. They believe and unashamedly teach that Jesus is the only way for salvation, that God has revealed Himself through Scripture, and that the Bible is an inspired, sufficient guide for every area of life.
How can parents help their children fall into the category of serious Christians whose faith can withstand the detrimental pressures of society? One obvious consideration is to ensure they are evangelized in their years at home, because no one is born a Christian. Parents can make sure their children grow up in an environment where the Gospel is taught not only as a series of intellectual statements one should assent to, but as a reality that affects all aspects of life. One source states “of young adults who left their faith, only 11 percent said they had a strong faith in childhood while 89 percent said they came from a home that had a very weak faith in belief and practice”.2 If Mom and Dad model prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance as important, kids will get the message and are far more likely to develop that in their own life than if Mom and Dad are just paying lip service to it.
At CMI, one reason we are so clear about the authority of Scripture in all areas of life is that we have heard time and time again about the heartbreaking results of children leaving the church once they leave home. The sad reality is that in many of these cases, the kids left the church because their parents’ faith never became their faith at all, and once they were free to display their unbelief, they simply ‘left the faith’. Some of these kids come back later in life, but many do not. So parents should make the most of the childhood years with not only Scriptural training and effective apologetics, but also personal behavior and habits consistent with the precepts of God’s Word, providing ‘good soil’ that can help children develop a faith that will survive university.
So as Christians, we should be encouraged by this report, but we should not become complacent! This report should spur us on to be purposefully diligent that the children in our families and churches grow up knowing that the Bible is God’s Word and it is trustworthy and accurate, from the very first verse!