The proportion of Christians in America is declining, a clear trend that is likely to continue—especially because Gen Z (who are not reflected in this study as a separate group) self-identifies as atheist at twice the rate of US adults overall (13% vs. 7%).(1) Barna tracking data since 1996 shows a sharp rise in those identifying as atheist, agnostic or “none” / no faith, alongside a nearly matching decline in “born again” Christians.
Forecasting in detail the impact of coming generations—who are all culturally “post-Christendom” and mostly “post-Christian” in their worldview—is impossible. But it’s safe to say the assumption that most people have been raised with similar faith practices or even a common religious language is already outdated.
What’s at stake if Christian evangelism is changing? Perhaps more than first meets the eye. Besides the obvious—that a decline in new believers will contribute to an overall decline in Christianity—there will likely be wider social effects.
To get a glimpse of the shape those effects may take, Christians’ evangelistic habits can act as a canary in the social coal mine. In examining how Christians share faith, we also gain insight into the strength of our social fabric, our cultural habits surrounding religious dialog and our receding abilities to maintain diverse relationships. As we will see, Christian faith-sharing relates to all of these. If evangelism—a social action that depends on unlike people considering the merits of shared belief and practice—is eroding, we must examine its wider context to understand and respond.
“Erosion” is an apt metaphor for the changes affecting evangelism in America. Rather than sharp breaks or explosive damage, waves of changes—some large, some small—are gradually wearing away faithsharing habits, values and skills.
Three trends emerging from the data demonstrate this erosion:
- America is “de-churching” and increasingly isolated.
- Most people do not feel a “God-shaped hole.”
- Cultural fragmentation complicates evangelism.
Let’s examine each one.
People Are De-Churching & Getting Lonelier
Along with declining Christian identity, churchgoing is in decline. In 2003, three-quarters of US selfidentified Christians reported attending church at least once in the previous six months (77%). Today, just 60 percent of Christians say they attended a worship service during the past six months. So even among the diminishing number of US adults who check the “Christian” box, church involvement is becoming less common.
Besides the accompanying shift in spiritual alignment, church involvement is not being replaced in terms of social capital. Most Elders were raised in a world where it was assumed one attended a house of worship, where one found a network of believers who offered social support, friendship and many other benefits. As church involvement has dropped off, however, few alternatives have arisen to take its place. Only about one-quarter of US adults who are not practicing Christians report belonging to a spiritual community (23%). The communal aspect of church is simply not being replaced—at least not with relationships that are overtly spiritual.
The number of people who tell Barna they feel lonely or isolated has increased in the past decade from 10 to 20 percent. The increase in loneliness reported by Americans is likely due at least in part to their disengagement from communities of faith. The void has been only partially filled by the rise of virtual networks. People online can learn about faith, dialog with others, give to causes they believe in and even experience some measure of shared worship. But while real connection can and does occur in such digital spaces, the community aspects of a local church are not sufficiently replicated online.
For example, in new research among 18- to 29-year-olds with a Christian background, Barna found that young adults who are most committed to practicing their faith today also tend to be more relationally well-rounded. Eight out of 10 report having a close, intimate friend (83%) and three-quarters say they have someone, other than a family member, to whom they can turn for advice (77%). On the other hand, ex-Christians or “prodigals” (as they are called in that study), are less likely to have a close friend (53%) or to have someone they can turn to for advice (49%).(3)
The de-churching of America is not the only factor making people lonelier than ever—but it’s certainly a factor.