While Christianity seems to be flourishing in Africa, Asia and Latin America, many believe it is dying in the U.S. and is already on life support in Europe and Canada. What is the actual condition of the Christian faith in America? Although cultural trends often do shift unexpectedly, there is some reason for optimism, as well as significant challenge facing the church in the U.S.
More 'Born agains'
At first glance, there does seem to be a vigorous and growing Christian community in America.
According to The Barna Group, a polling firm that focuses on religious faith in the U.S., the number of "born again Christians" (see definitions below) is growing. The "proportion of adults who can be classified as 'born again Christians' ... was the highest ever measured in the quarter century that Barna has been tracking that measure," it said in a recent report.
Barna Group Definitions
Barna reported that 45% of all adults claimed to be born again -- up from 31% in 1983. "The current figure represents the largest single-year increase since 1991-1992," the group said. When the subject turns to the narrower category of evangelicals, the percentage is smaller: 9% of all adults fit into that category.
Moreover, the notion that America is awash in non-Christian religions, pagan faiths and hordes of atheists does not appear to be true. "Adults who are aligned with faiths other than Christianity, and those who consider themselves to be atheist or agnostic, each comprise less than 10% of the population," Barna said.
Generally speaking then, the American people still seem interested in the Christian faith. George Barna said research reveals "that people's faith is not at all deep, but at least more people are becoming attuned to the importance of the life, death, resurrection and message of Jesus Christ."
Religious Behaviors Increasing
Barna's research presents an even brighter picture when religious activity is considered. The Barna Group reported that "there has been a significant increase in religious activity related to five of the seven core religious behaviors studied by the company."
In 2006, 47% of adults said they read the Bible during a typical week, up dramatically from 1995, when the number hit a 20-year low of just 31%. Increases were also registered in four more areas: church attendance, involvement in small groups that meet for Bible reading and other spiritual practices, church volunteerism, and Sunday School attendance.
The only two areas out of the seven that did not see an increase were prayer and evangelism. In the survey, 84% said they had prayed during the preceding week -- a high percentage that has not changed since 1993, when Barna said it first began tracking the practice of prayer.
As for personal evangelism, 60% of born again Christians said they had shared their faith with someone they knew was not a Christian. As with prayer, this was a percentage that had not changed during the last decade, Barna said.
"It is typical for us to see one or maybe two measures surge forward in a given year, only to stabilize or perhaps retreat to prior levels in subsequent years," Barna said. "The intriguing possibility is that with most of our key behavioral measures showing increases at the same time, there is the possibility that this may herald a holistic, lasting commitment to engagement with God and the Christian faith."
Barna added that if these increases in religious activity stabilize or even grow in minimal fashion, "then we can confidently suggest that the U.S. is genuinely experiencing meaningful change in people's religious habits."
A religious shift occurring
Despite these hopeful signs, however, research reveals the rumblings of a possible radical shift in the way many Americans think about religion and the Christian life. More and more adults -- even Christians -- believe that church involvement is unnecessary for an individual's spiritual development.
"Only 17% of adults said that 'a person's faith is meant to be developed mainly by involvement in a local church,'" said a Barna report. "Even the most devoted church-going groups -- such as evangelicals and born again Christians -- generally dismiss that notion: only one-third of all evangelicals and one out of five non-evangelical born again adults endorsed the concept."
In a 2005 Newsweek cover story, writer Jerry Adler found "a flowering of spirituality" in America that seemed to be occurring outside church walls. "Whatever is going on here, it's not an explosion of people going to church," Adler said.
"Spirituality," or "the impulse to seek communion with the Divine," he observed, "is thriving." Adler cited a Newsweek/Beliefnet Poll which found that "more Americans, especially younger than 60, described themselves as 'spiritual' (79%) than 'religious' (64%)."
In the wake of America's rich heritage of political, economic and, over the last 40 years, sexual freedom, a spirit of religious individualism seems to be flourishing.
Harvey Cox, professor at Harvard Divinity School, wrote in Foreign Policy: "More and more people view the world's religious traditions as a buffet from which they can pick and choose."
The trend has tremendous ramifications for religious hierarchy, which Cox said is "crumbling fast." He said, "The notions of consumer choice and local control have stormed the religious realm, and decentralization of faith is now the order of the day. Religious leaders who once could command, instruct, and expel now must cajole, persuade, and compete."
When it comes to denominations, Cox added that "'brand loyalty' is a thing of the past."
Religion an Individual Pursuit?
What's going on? George Barna thinks many people are looking for an authenticity, passion and sense of community they find lacking in many churches.
"Americans remain unconvinced of the necessity of the collective faith experience," he said. "This is partially because the typical church model esteems attendance rather than interaction and immersion, partially due to the superficial experiences most believers have had in cell groups or Christian education classes, and partially attributable to our cultural bias toward independence and fluid relationships."
But is a Lone-Ranger pursuit of spirituality the answer? Many church leaders see a danger in this approach. In 1983, well before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addressed "the relation between personal experience and the common faith of the Church."
He wrote: "Both factors are important: a dogmatic faith unsupported by personal experience remains empty; mere personal experience unrelated to the faith of the Church remains blind."
In other words, for Christianity, at least, the Christian life must be lived out in the context of the community of believers. Barna states emphatically that "the Bible is unambiguous about the importance of experiencing God through a shared faith journey, and Jesus' example leaves no room for doubt about the significance of involvement in a faith community ...."
Although he seems to applaud the individualistic spirit growing in America's religious communities, Cox also sees potential dangers lurking behind the trend. "Religions without unassailable leaders and with hungry competitors may find themselves marketing as much as ministering," he said. "Meeting buyer preferences may seem essential in business, but it can eviscerate the integrity of the religious 'product.' Imagine what the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount might have been if Moses or Christ had poll-tested them."
Challenges for the Church
It's not all bad news. Barna said a significant number of people appear to be leaving the organized church flock, but not for pagan or otherwise non-Christian religious pastures. Instead, they appear to be opting for a more informal pursuit of the Christian life through home churches.
In the last decade, according to Barna, the percentage of adults who attend a house church during a typical week grew from just 1% to 9%. If monthly attendance is considered, Barna said "one out of five adults attends a house church at least once a month."
Where do those who identify themselves as Christian go to experience their religious faith traditions? According to a 2006 Barna Group report:
74% attend only a conventional church
19% attend both a house church and a conventional church
5% attend only a house church
2% small group, but not considered a house church
If extrapolated to the national population, Barna's figures mean that more than 20 million adults in the U.S. attend a house church during the week, while 43 million do so once a month. And that does not even include the number of regular, traditional church goers who also participate in small group meetings.
It's a trend Barna thinks will accelerate. He believes that "by 2025 the local church will lose roughly half of its current 'market share' and that alternative forms of faith experience and expression will pick up the slack," home churches among them.
If the growing popularity of house churches is an indication that the institutional church model is not meeting the basic spiritual needs of Christians, perhaps some honest soul-searching on the part of church leaders is in order.
"Developing a biblical understanding of the preeminence of community life will take intentional leadership, strategic action and time," Barna said. In considering how to meet such needs, Barna's recommendations on another subject -- getting the unchurched back into church -- are relevant.
"These people tend to be less turned on by the music or preaching than by a sense of God's presence -- even though they don't quite know how to explain or understand it -- and by the feeling that they are visiting a group of people who are a genuine community of loving and accepting individuals," Barna said about the unchurched.
It may not be clear just yet if there is a genuine shift occurring in the religious life of America. But what is clear is that, if institutional churches want to remain relevant, they can no longer conduct business as usual.