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Protestants no longer the majority in U.S.

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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interior of the first Baptist church in America, in Providence, Rhode Island from the back balcony (Credit: First Baptist Church Providence via Facebook)

For the first time in our history, America does not have a Protestant majority.  The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has released a new study indicating that only 48 percent of adults in the U.S. are Protestants, the first time their numbers have fallen below 50 percent.

Is this because Catholics are growing or Protestants are declining?  Partially: Catholics were up 0.57 percent last year, while most Protestant denominations declined one to three percent.  And it is true that a growing number of Americans consider themselves nondenominational and thus do not count as Protestants.  But the real issue is the number of “nones”—those who say they have no religious commitment of any kind.  Their numbers have risen from 15 percent to 20 percent in the last five years; they constitute the fastest-growing religious demographic in America.

Two factors explain their growth.  First, fewer people who drop out of church are continuing to identify with their denomination.  It seems the stigma associated with not being part of a religious community has declined, making it easier for people to tell researchers that they’re no longer religious.

Second, and far more significantly, the number of young adults who affiliate with a religion is at an all-time low.  While only nine percent of people 65 and older claim no religion, one-third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation.  Researchers don’t expect them to become more religious as they age, indicating that religious commitment in our nation will continue to decline in the years ahead.

This precipitous fall in church attendance among young people coincides with an unprecedented emphasis on “user-friendly” churches, contemporary music, and market-driven growth strategies.  We have more media-savvy ministers and churches than ever, but we’re reaching fewer media-savvy Americans than ever.

A deeper problem is at work here.  For reasons that would take much longer than this essay to explain, our culture has bought the lie that truth is subjective and ethics are relative.  Today there’s “your truth” and “my truth.”  It’s conventional wisdom that you can be spiritual but not religious, that denominational creeds and traditions are outdated and irrelevant.  The vast majority of Americans still say they believe in God, but for many, God is whatever they believe in.  (See an essay on postmodernism for an explanation of this phenomenon.)

To paraphrase Voltaire, God made us in his image, then we returned the favor.  What is the one true God doing to reach our post-Christian society?  He is raising up ministries, ours among them, which seek to demonstrate the relevance of his word by speaking biblical truth to contemporary issues.  He is using news such as the Pew report to warn his people that business as usual will not reach our culture.  And he is burdening more Christians to pray fervently for spiritual awakening in our nation.  Will you join us?