The effects of the pandemic, the growing cultural disdain for “organized religion,” and the socio-politico turn to secularism have reduced church rolls. A Gallup report going all the way back to 1937 shows formal church membership has dropped from a high of 70% to 39% in 2020.
“Continued decline in future decades seems inevitable,” predicted Gallup Senior Editor Jeffrey M. Jones.
Is it over for American churches? Are we living in the era of end-times apostasy signaling an inevitable, irreversible slow fade of church life as we know it?
Movements come and go, say some historical observers, and it just may be that the church’s journey in finite time from the launch at Pentecost has sputtered out. Institutional atrophy seems inevitable.
Sadly, the institutional quest causes a church to become introverted, focusing more on its institutional survival than on incarnational mission. The focus on survival and reconstruction on the ruins of a collapsed institution means a church’s own survival becomes more important than the Lord who created it, the truth He gave it, the call to which He summoned it, and the people to whom He sent it.
The biblical view is the kairological outlook: God so often uses catastrophes for His purposes and no doubt this will be a new day for the Church of Jesus Christ. The church Jesus intended as described in the Book of Acts.
The focus must not be on trying to breathe life into dying institutions. In the biblical scheme, death leads to resurrection. Rather than seeing this period with the desperation of hopeless people watching the creep of finite time bringing death to antiquated hulks, the better focus should be that of the infusion of new life. Rather than pre-occupation with sustaining structure, the energy should be spent on building ministry, making disciples of Jesus. Instead of mourning the death that is inevitable in chronos-time, it is better to rejoice at the new kairological day that is rising before us.
adapted from an article in Christian Post: A New Day for the Church Part 1 by Wallace B Henley
A new peer-reviewed study published last month in the academic journal Sociology of Religion demonstrates that churches grow under persecution.
The study’s findings, outlined in Christianity Today by authors Nilay Saiya and Stuti Manchanda, buck conventional wisdom. In places where Christians enjoy official support from national governments, religious faith tends to decline. Conversely, Christianity spreads most successfully in countries with legal commitments to religious pluralism and in places that actively discriminate against and persecute believers.
These are the countries with the fastest growing Christian populations (the states with low/no official support for the faith are in bold): Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Uganda, Rwanda, Madagascar, Liberia, Kenya, DR Congo, and Angola.
And here are the countries with the fastest declining Christian populations (the states with moderate/high official support for the faith are in bold): Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia, Albania, Moldova, Serbia, Germany, Lithuania, and Hungary.
Hungary, for example, is an officially Christian nation. Even still, faith is waning: Although a majority of Hungarians identify as Catholic, only 12% regularly attend church services and just 14% describe religion as “very important” in their lives.
It is worth noting, as author Rod Dreher has, Prime Minister Victor Orban’s governance in Budapest is very much aligned with politically conservative Christian views. As such, the country has passed legislation to that end.
Nevertheless, Saiya and Manchanda argue that, in pluralistic societies, where religious ideologies coexist and must compete, for lack of a better word, Christianity — untethered from politics — often flourishes. Paradoxically, they found, “state favoritism of religion inadvertently suppresses it.”
That is due to the fact that, countries that are “officially Christian,” and even in the U.S., to an extent, Christianity may become less about a convictional relationship with Jesus and instead morph into just one aspect of a citizen’s larger national identity, resulting in faith being less about personal beliefs and more about cultural tradition.
On the other hand, the Christian faith has expanded most in Asian countries, where there’s no “official” faith and pluralism has been embraced: In contrast to Europe, Christianity in Asian countries has not been in a position to receive preferential treatment from the state, and this reality has resulted in stunning Christian growth rates. The Christian faith has actually benefited by not being institutionally attached to the state, feeding its growth and vitality.
Consider the case of South Korea, which in the course of a century has gone from being a country devoid of Christianity to one of its biggest exporters. It currently ranks as the second-largest sender of missionaries, trailing only the United States.
This example illustrates well the paradox of pluralism. Because South Korea is not a Christian country, Christianity enjoys no special relationship to the state. In fact, Christianity in Korea endured the brutal persecution of Japanese colonial rule, during which churches were forcibly closed down and their properties confiscated. Indeed, the church persisted through poverty, war, dictatorship, and national crises throughout Korean history.
Since World War II, Korean Christianity has grown exponentially, with tens of thousands of churches being built and seminaries producing thousands of graduates every year. Today, about a third of the country is Christian.
Christianity also seems to flourish — as it did for the early church leaders in Acts — in places where believers face discrimination and persecution.
The faith of those facing persecution for their convictions is often deeper and more profound, because the stakes are inherently higher when it’s not in one’s cultural best interest to embrace such beliefs.
Open Doors USA, an advocacy organization tracking Christian persecution around the globe, ranks Iran as the eighth-worst place in the world for believers. Despite facing “extreme” persecution — where the government has outlawed conversion from Islam, imprisons those who evangelize, and arrests people for attending secret house churches or sharing Christian literature — it’s believed there could be at least one million Christians in the Islamic country.
A similar phenomenon is believed to be unfolding in Afghanistan, which Open Doors lists as the second-worst place to be a Christian. There is only a small number of believers in the country, where it is illegal to convert from Islam, and those who do face certain imprisonment, violence, and potentially even death. Rula Ghani, the first lady of Afghanistan, is a Maronite Christian from Lebanon.
Outside the Middle East, the world’s largest persecuted body of believers is found in China, where the communist government continually discriminates against and harms Christians.
Much to President Xi Jinping’s chagrin, Protestant Christianity has continued to grow exponentially in China, where the government estimates some 200 million of its 1.5 billion citizens are believers.
Fenggang Yang, a sociologist of religion at Purdue University, said in 2019 he believes more Protestant Christians will live in China by 2030 than any other country in the world.
“When Communists took power in 1949, there were one million Protestants living in China, compared with 58 million in 2010 and probably around 100 million in 2019,” he said. “Despite the government’s efforts to suppress, I don’t think it will stop the growth of Christianity in China. All the evidence I have collected shows it’s undeniable; it’s already happening.”
If these numbers reveal anything to Christians, it is that believers should place their trust not in conventional wisdom, but in the often paradoxical work of the Holy Spirit.
Russian philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsky once lamented the deeply misguided belief held my many Christians “that Christ cannot reign without an earthly kingdom.”
It would be folly for the Christian to spend his or her life building an impenetrable kingdom on earth. We know from Scripture such an effort would be in vain. Psalm 46 says, “The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice and the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” And, in Matthew 24, Jesus told His disciples it is His authority alone that will stand the test of time: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
In Matthew 6, Jesus warned His followers against storing up treasures on earth, “where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” Instead, He told them to invest in the eternal Kingdom of God.
Our ultimate hope, redemption, and restoration comes not in the protection of the state, which is never certain, but through salvation in Jesus, with whom we are heirs to a Kingdom operating outside the space and time of this temporal world.
The most common religious identity among young adults in the U.S. is “none,” and the majority of Americans don’t believe it’s necessary for a person to believe in God to be moral and have good values, a new survey has found. The survey on American Life investigating contemporary religion in the U.S. found that among young adults (age 18 to 29), the most common religious identity today is none. More than one in three (34%) young adults are religiously unaffiliated. Nearly nine in 10 (87%) Americans report they believe in God, but just over half (53%) report they believe in God without any doubts at all. Overall, 42% of Americans have a close social connection with someone who is religiously unaffiliated — up from 18% in 2004. Additionally, most Americans say it’s not necessary for a person to believe in God to be moral and have good values. Close to six in 10 (59%) Americans say a belief in God is not a precondition to being moral and having good values, while 41% of the public say a belief in God is essential. These statistics, the authors say, mark a “remarkable shift in recent years. The study also found that Americans are almost equally divided over whether it is better to discuss religious beliefs and ideas with those who do not share the same perspective, and most Americans have never been invited to church. A majority (54%) of Americans say they have not been asked to participate in a religious service in the past 12 months or have never been asked.
The survey corroborates a 2019 Pew Study survey that documented the decline of Christians and rise of religiously unaffiliated. Pew noted that the religiously unaffiliated group rose to 22.8% share of the population in 2014, eclipsing the number of Catholics in America, who fell to 20.8%. Christians as a whole fell from 78.4 to 70% of the population between 2007 to 2014, with every major group experiencing a decline. Similarly, the 2018 General Social Survey found that the number of religious “nones” in the U.S. are now statistically equal to the number of evangelicals. Ryan Burge, a political science researcher at Eastern Illinois University who analyzed data from the survey, told The Christian Post that the religious “‘none’s’ are not slowing down.”
THE GOOD NEWS
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, previously said the “increasing strangeness” of Christianity is actually “good news” for the church. “Christianity isn’t normal anymore. It never should have been. The increasing strangeness of Christianity might be bad news for America, but it’s good news for the church. The major newspapers are telling us today that Christianity is dying, according to this new study, but what is clear from this study is exactly the opposite: while mainline traditions plummet, evangelical churches are remaining remarkably steady,” Moore said.
He added that statistics indicate there are honest atheists in America today, and that they are rejecting what’s called “almost-Christianity,” or traditions that “jettison the historic teachings of the Church as soon as they become unfashionable.” “The churches that are thriving are the vibrant, counter-cultural congregations that aren’t afraid to not be seen as normal to the surrounding culture. This report actually leaves me hopeful. The Bible Belt may fall. So be it,” he continued. “Christianity emerged from a Roman Empire hostile to the core to the idea of a crucified and resurrected Messiah. We’ve been on the wrong side of history since Rome, and it was enough to turn the world upside down.”
In 1951, Nepal reported no Christians in its government census. And by 1961, that number increased to just 458. Today, the World Christian Database ranks the country as the 12th fastest-growing Christian population in the world with 1,285,200 believers, said database co-director Gina Zurlo. The real number might be higher.
Until 2008, Nepal was a Hindu kingdom. For Hindu radicals, being Nepali means being culturally Hindu, Pastor Tanka Subedi told CP. Subedi leads Nepal’s Family of God Church and serves as director of the International Nepal Fellowship. Although most Hindus live in peace with Christians, he said some fiercely oppose the Gospel. “The prime minister himself says he doesn’t believe in God but is Hindu,” said Subedi. “State media and government officials [say] Christianity is coming to Nepal to destroy our culture. It’s challenging to evangelize people who have that mindset.”
Despite rising persecution, Christians continue to share their faith, Subedi said, because the government can’t arrest them all. We come from a persecuted background. We were never free. We are used to it, he said.
People feel eager to become Christians because of the reality of the Christian faith and the healings, Subedi added.
Suroj Shakya, a 41 year old church elder in Nepal told CP that he became a Christian at 8 years old after God healed him from food poisoning. When Suroj was 19, his mother Gita Shakya was diagnosed with a painful, paralyzing spinal growth. Doctors told Gita and Suroj, that her best option for healing was a risky, potentially lethal surgery, Suroj shared with The Christian Post. Surgery was expensive, and Gita’s husband, Babukaji, a Buddhist priest, refused to pay his Christian wife’s expenses. Doctors in Singapore gave 19-year-old Suroj two days to decide whether to let his mother live in terrible pain or risk her death.
Suroj prayed, then decided it was best to do the surgery. But he didn’t know what he would tell his family if Gita died, he said. At that time, I felt so alone in Singapore because it was my first visit, and I had nobody to share my problems with besides talking with the Lord in prayer, he added.
Suroj heard a knock at the door. It was a group of local church members who wanted to pray for Gita. After 20 minutes of prayer, a miracle happened, he said. Gita stood up. She kicked out with her left foot, which hadn’t moved for years. She punched out with her left arm. Suddenly, she could move. Gita started to weep and praise God, Suroj recalled. “There was no pain and sadness, which she had before. Her face was changed into joy and happiness,” he said.
Afterward, Suroj said doctors didn’t believe Gita was the same woman. Babukaji didn’t believe his wife had been healed without surgery until he saw she had no scars. Then along with his son, Suman, he became a Christian.
Such stories happen often in Nepal, said Suroj. Despite persecution and poverty, the Nepalese church has grown incredibly quickly. The South Asian country has one of the fastest-growing Christian populations in the world. To secular Westerners, it might seem impossible. But the mountains of Nepal have witnessed incredibly fast church growth in part because of miraculous healings.
The church growth is because of miracles, Suroj asserted. “[If] people don’t [get healed] from the hospital, they go to the church and ask for prayer from the church leaders. When the church family and church leaders pray for the sick people, they are getting healed.”
I believe as persecution of Christians intensifies in the West the Christian remnant will be more like the church described in the Book of Acts. Healings and miracles will be normal and an important part of church growth just as it is in Nepal.