Most people in Christianity know that the church in America is dying. We know that young people are leaving the church in droves and that those with no religious affiliation, the infamous nones, are rising at an incredible rate. But is this all an old wives' tale? Are those warning about the dying church and its pending collapse simply “Chicken Littles” running around claiming the sky is falling? That’s the opinion of Glenn T. Stanton. Stanton, who works for the evangelical organization Focus on the Family, has recently published a book entitled The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity is Actually Thriving in America and the World. In it, he argues that the conventional wisdom is incorrect and that the American church is actually growing.
He does not claim to address the whole body of data or even most of the data. Instead, he claims to address “the best data.”
There are a couple of problems with this book before even getting into the arguments Stanton presents. The first is how Stanton chose his studies. He does not claim to address the whole body of data or even most of the data. Instead, he claims to address “the best data.”1 This begs the question of who decides what data is best? In this case, it is Stanton relying on secular experts, but really this is totally arbitrary. Based on this standard, I could argue that the “best data” support the absurdity of a flat earth! What Stanton is doing here is cherry-picking data that he likes and supports his position. Keep that in mind later, when we examine the data he does present. Further, despite claiming only to use “the best data,” Stanton frequently resorts to argument by anecdote. This logical fallacy is committed when one appeals to personal experience as an argument. Here is just one example. “My church is still around, and the pews are still crowded. My friends’ churches still exist. I pass churches on a daily basis that have loads of cars in their parking lots on Sunday mornings and weeknight evenings.”2 There are numerous other examples like this throughout the book. In fact, the entirety of Chapter 9, entitled “‘Is My Church Shrinking?’ and Other Questions to Consider” encourages people to argue from their personal experience!3
Stanton’s logical foibles are not limited to appealing to experiences. He regularly commits the ad hominem fallacy as well. This fallacy occurs when the arguer attacks the person making the argument rather than the argument itself. His continued use of “Chicken Little” referring to those who disagree with him is repeated use of this fallacy. In fact, Stanton goes so far as to hint that those proclaiming a dying church are really attempting to propagate liberal theology subtly. “These academics would certainly tell Chicken Little she had nothing to squawk about…unless she were an agent for the liberal project.”4
Stanton seems to be motivated in writing this book by a general dislike for people who offer the church resources to solve the problem. “If you pay attention, it is usually those who offer us the resources that are the ones citing dire stats, driving a great deal of the “sky is falling” hysteria in the first place. In order to sell your solution, you have to convince your customer of the problem, right?”5 He made a similar point in a podcast he did with a pair of Biola University professors stating, “And I would say that many of the people who have started this myth are, I mean, unfortunately, many of the people that do kind of what we do as apologetics work, it's the advertising thing of, if you've got the answer, you've got to highlight the problem.”6 He seems to be insinuating that apologetics ministries, like Answers in Genesis, are being deliberately deceptive with statistics for financial gain.
Another problem with the book is a significant lack of clarity over what Stanton means by “church.” He regularly cites Roman Catholic statistics, as well as the growth of the worldwide church. This makes it very difficult to know what he means when he says the church is growing. He could be conflating orthodox Christianity with Roman Catholicism or the church in America with the church worldwide, and he rarely specifies which one he is talking about.
Stanton has a number of main arguments he puts forward. The first, and primary argument he uses is that the more theologically liberal churches are crumbling.7 This is supported by the evidence. According to the General Social Survey, a metric Stanton calls “the gold standard,”8 in 1972 mainline Protestant churches made up 35% of the population but have dropped to 23% in 2018.9,10 Among the youngest demographic, the 18–34-year-olds (hereafter referred to as Millennials), the percentage has dropped from 31% to 20% over the same time frame.11 Pew Research data makes the same point. In a 2015 survey, Pew found that the mainline Protestant groups had declined by 3.1% from 2007 to 2014.12
Stanton parlays the argument that the mainline churches are collapsing into arguing that the nones, which everyone acknowledges are on the rise, are not new but just have been renamed, or, more appropriately renamed themselves. Stanton argues that these are people who had previously loosely held to Christianity but, as the culture shifts, have been made more comfortable saying they had no religion. To back up this point, Stanton cites just a single study, from Pew, published in 2009. The data Stanton presents claims that only 12% of former Protestants and Catholics who are now among the nones had a self-described strong faith as a teenager.13 If it stopped there, Stanton might have a case that the nones never had much faith to begin with. However, he left out some vital information from the same survey.
What Stanton leaves out is critical.
What Stanton leaves out is critical. This is just the first of numerous examples of him cherry-picking data he likes. One factor he leaves out is that, of the people in this study in which he says did not have a strong faith, many claim to have had much stronger faith as children, with 30% of Catholics and 18% of Protestants claiming they had strong faith as a child before moving into the nones.14 74% of Catholics and 64% of Protestants who are now among the nones went to church every week as children. 44% of Catholics and 29% of Protestants now unaffiliated went to church weekly as teenagers.15 68% of Catholics and 51% of Protestants who left the faith went to Sunday School regularly.16 Of those who left the faith, 32% of Catholics and 36% of Protestants went to religious youth groups.17 This data does not show what Stanton thinks it does. Instead, it shows a gradual decrease in faith from childhood until walking away from the faith as an adult, sometimes earlier.
This data is not a surprise to us at Answers in Genesis. In fact, our CEO Ken Ham co-wrote a book, Already Gone, which addresses this very problem of children gradually losing faith and falling away. In fact, the research was performed before the Pew study was published, and the book came out a mere month after the Pew Study. The book, based on data from America’s Research Group (ARG), points out that those raised in Christian homes and attending relatively conservative denominations were gone long before college. According to the survey, 87.82% of those who have left the faith had their first doubts about their faith in elementary, middle, or high school.18 This matches what the Pew data shows accurately. Those leaving the church have questions at a young age and are not getting sound answers.19
Building on his argument that the nones are all coming from theologically liberal denominations, Stanton claims that evangelical Christianity in America is not declining and instead is holding steady. In making this argument, he appeals to several sources, including Greg Smith, the associate director of research at the Pew Research Center. He quotes Smith as saying in a 2016 interview “With respect to Evangelicalism in particular I would say, that particularly compared with other Christian traditions in the United States, Evangelicalism is quite strong. It’s holding its own both in terms of its share of the total population. It’s holding its own in terms of the number of Americans who identify with Evangelical Christianity. If you look at Christianity as a whole . . . the share of Protestants in the United States who are Evangelicals is, if anything, growing.”20 It is a long quote, but it is important to read the whole thing to understand what Smith means. He does not mean Evangelicalism is actually growing as a percentage of the population of America, despite Stanton’s glee over this statement. He means that the percentage of Protestants who are Evangelicals is growing. This is an important distinction because Protestants include both the Evangelical and mainline branches. As Stanton himself pointed out, the mainline denominations are imploding. Therefore, by default, evangelicalism looks bigger. The smaller the mainline denominations get, the bigger the percentage of evangelicals will be. This is not an increase in absolute numbers! Stanton is misrepresenting what Smith actually said.
An important point to note is that Smith does not cite a single point of data to back up his statement. Nor does Stanton immediately.
An important point to note is that Smith does not cite a single point of data to back up his statement. Nor does Stanton immediately. In fact, Smith could not cite a number since his own polling company had demonstrated that Evangelicalism is slightly shrinking overall, decreasing by slightly less than 1% (0.9%) between 2007 and 2014, in spite of gaining 1.5% of the mainline Protestants during that time.21 This does not stop Stanton from blatantly misrepresenting the data. He writes “Add to this Pew’s findings that the percentage of the US population who describe themselves as “born again” and/or “evangelical” increased by 1 percent from 2007 to 2014, at the very time the dire “Chicken Little warnings were being most fearfully broadcast.”22 This is not an accidental error as he repeats this falsehood multiple times. The actual Pew Study reads, “The evangelical Protestant share of the US population also has dipped, but at a slower rate, falling by about one percentage point since 2007.”23 By Stanton’s own statistical citation, Evangelicalism is shrinking not growing! Stanton opines in the book that it is “ . . . better to live by truth than falsehood.”24 We completely agree with that statement! However, it is Stanton who is being dishonest with his statistics.
This is sadly not the only falsehood Stanton uses to advance his presumably well-meaning but misguided agenda. His next point is that young people are not leaving the church but are actually attending more orthodox churches. According to Stanton, citing Ed Stetzer of Wheaton, the number of people age 18–29 calling themselves evangelical doubled between 1972 and 2016.25 To make this claim, he cites the GSS (General Social Survey) data. However, the GSS data does not support this. For one thing, the youngest GSS category goes from 18–34 so where Stetzer got the number 29 is a mystery. A bigger mystery is the “doubled” claim. In 1972, 25% of people 18–34 considered themselves evangelical. In 2016, when Stanton had access to the numbers, the number was 21% and had been trending down since it peaked at 37% in 1991. In the 2018 data, the number dropped further to 19%.26 It does not require an advanced degree in math to figure out that 21% is not double 25% and is, in fact, less. Recall also that Stanton called the GSS the “gold standard.” His own “gold standard” does not agree with his premise.
Stanton argues further that there is nothing abnormal about young people leaving the church and then returning later in life. This argument would make sense only if all other age brackets were staying roughly stable. They are not. The 35–49 age bracket has ticked down by 8 % since 2012. The 50–64 age bracket has also ticked down, though only by 4% since 2012 and has been trending down since 1993. Only the 65+ age group is holding roughly steady, though its numbers have been as high as 40% and as low as 22% since 1972.27 Evangelicalism is declining and rapidly. It appears, “Chicken Little” was right.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Stanton argues that more people are attending church than at any other time in the history of the church. His evidence for this is sparse, irrelevant, false, and anecdotal, like most of his other claims. He points out that the 2015 Pew study claimed that numerous religious associated behaviors are increasing among the faithful. People who say they pray daily has increased, church attendance frequency has increased, Bible reading is up, and so on.28 All of those statements are true. However, they are also irrelevant. These behaviors are only on the rise among those still in the church! It is not an increase in people in the church.
The lost’s view of the church has absolutely no impact on whether the church lives or dies.
Stanton’s second line of reasoning is no better. He cites the attitude of the general, religiously unaffiliated public towards Christianity from the same Pew study. It is remarkably favorable.29 It is also remarkably irrelevant to the state of the church. The lost’s view of the church has absolutely no impact on whether the church lives or dies. In fact, in the Roman Empire, Christians were held in contempt and ruthlessly persecuted, but survived and thrived. Why Stanton thought that the world’s attitude toward the church is a direct indicator of the vitality of the church is unclear. A positive opinion of the church is not enough to change a person’s wicked actions, nor is it enough to keep a dying local church afloat.
One statistic that Stanton cites in his attempt to claim the church is larger than anything it has been in the past is the statistic from Pew that there has been a slight increase in the frequency of people sharing their faith with others.30 While Pew’s data may be accurate, it does not reflect the worrying flipside trend, which indicates that 47% of Millennials are at least somewhat convinced that sharing their faith with someone of a different faith is wrong.31
Interestingly for a book on statistics related to Christianity, Stanton does not once refer to the work of George Barna. The founder of the Barna Group, which researches trends in Christianity, Barna’s work has been regularly cited by leaders throughout evangelical Christianity. However, for some reason, Barna’s work is not among the “best data” Stanton likes so much. In fact, Stanton does not refer to Barna’s data once in 200 pages, plus a 14-page introduction.
While Stanton does not refer to Barna directly in his book, he does take a backhanded swing at Christian researchers in general who produce numbers he doesn’t like. “This is not polling done by some Christian groups here and there who don’t really do academic, broad population research. These results come from the very data that all professional sociologists rely on for their own diverse and complex research in demographics in the United States.”32 Notice how he denigrates his fellow Christians “some Christian groups here and there” and “don’t really do academic . . . research” while promoting secular researchers as “all professional sociologists” doing “diverse and complex research.” The implication is that Christians cannot do good or unbiased research and we should rely on the secular (presumably unbiased) professionals to do the work for us. But no one is unbiased. It also, conveniently, allows him to exclude data that disagree with his thesis from consideration.
If Stanton were to have included Barna’s numbers, he would not have been able to paint such a pretty picture, particularly about young people. 30% of millennials say attending church is not at all important while 30% say it is very important. The remaining 40% are somewhere in the middle.33 Generation Z, the coming generation of young people, is even further gone. 21% self-identify as either atheist or agnostic, while another 14% claim no faith but not atheistic or agnostic.34 59% of Gen Z believe the church is not relevant to them, so even among those identifying as Christian or other religion, many are already gone, especially since this number is higher than those that self-identify as Christian.35 Ironically, even the secular poll organization Gallup admits the church is collapsing among younger people. They point out that, compared to previous generations, Millennials have much lower rates of church membership.36 Stanton ignores this too. It’s almost as if any data that did not fit the thesis was not admissible.
The church is bleeding young people in particular at an alarming rate.
It gives me no pleasure to write that the church is dying in America. The church is bleeding young people in particular at an alarming rate. Pew, GSS, Gallup, ARG, and Barna all agree on this point. The only disagreement comes from Stanton. This begs the question, why we are losing so many young people? There is no one answer to it, but a few common themes emerged in the ARG and Barna studies. A 2011 Barna study found that 25% of those leaving the church feel the church is “anti-science.”37 The ARG study we funded at Answers in Genesis went deeper and discovered that 43.5% do not believe everything in the Bible is true and accurate, and another 18.2% are unsure.38 Thus 61.7% of people who leave the church do not believe the entire Bible is true. Of the 43.5% mentioned above, 14.71% cited biblical contradictions as the seed of their doubt; 13.79% cited the purported millions of years; 24.37% cite human authorship of Scripture; 11.03% cite Scriptural “errors”; 6.9% cite the problem of suffering; and 4.37% cite evolution. 46.4%, a plurality, believe the age of the earth is 6 billion years.39 The vast majority of the reasons young people cite for doubting the Scripture are apologetics issues! The church is losing young people because it has failed to defend biblical inerrancy and to teach apologetics!40
Based on both his own and other empirical data, Stanton’s thesis, that all is well with the size of the church, is refuted. Stanton’s handling of the data is sloppy at best and in some cases, can sadly be described as dishonest. As much as we want the church to be thriving in America, the numbers simply do not bear this out, and no amount of hand-waving will change that.
This is not simply a case of “Chicken Little” being right this one time that the sky is falling. It likens best to the “watchman” principle found in Ezekiel 33:2–6. The watchman was not responsible for what people did with his warning: he was only responsible for issuing the warning. If he did not warn of a clear, approaching threat, he was held to account. We at Answers in Genesis strive to be faithful watchmen, warning of the fate of the church if it does not return to the foundations of the Word of God. The all-too-tragic example of once Christian Europe is there, and this will be the fate of the American church if it does not return to an exclusive reliance upon the whole counsel of Scripture.