Two major publications this week revealed the changing fortunes of the Christian faith – one in America, where it appears to be slipping slowly, and the other in China, where it’s catching on in a significant way. But the real story, I believe, is that in the midst of the opposing changes is a profound and constant truism.
According to the Pew Research Center’s newest Religious Landscape Study, both the absolute number and percentage share of Christians in America have declined – from about 178 million and 78 percent in 2007 to 173 million and 71 percent in 2014. In absolute numbers, the drop is mostly attributed to mainline Protestants. Catholics have decreased only slightly, and evangelical Protestants have actually increased. (As a percentage of the population, however, all three groups have experienced a decline.)
At the same time, according to “A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China,” Christianity is surging in China. The authors of the new book – Rodney Stark, co-director of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, and sociologist Xiuhua Wang – explained that in 2007 there were about 60 million Christians in Communist China. Now, they noted, more than 40 new Christian churches (not including underground churches) are starting up every week. “If this trend were to hold for even another decade,” they wrote, “there would be more Christians in China than any other nation in the world.”
These contrasting portraits of two powerful nations on opposite sides of the planet raise big questions, even as they beg for intelligent answers, concerning the reasons for these historic shifts. These questions and answers transcend the simplistic news coverage the studies have, predictably, received.
For starters, the studies clearly reflect changes happening to us and our disparate social and political situations, not some startling new discoveries about Christianity itself. Worldwide, the number of Christians has quadrupled in the past century and is still growing robustly – it is predicted to increase from the current 2.17 billion to 2.92 billion in 2050.
Christianity is also not just the largest but the most widespread religion on the planet. “So far-flung, in fact,” said a 2011 Pew Research Center report on Global Christianity, “that no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity.” Stark and Wang reported that even in China, as well as Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, increasing numbers of people are choosing Christianity over Buddhism and definitely over Taoism. “The best data available,” the authors said, “suggest that there are virtually no Taoists in China.”
In America, much of the slip in Christianity’s numbers is being driven by the millennial “me” generation, well known for tending to avoid commitment and institutions of every kind, not just religious. Consider these telltale statistics from last year’s study of millennials by Pew: 50 percent of Americans 18 to 33 years of age are political independents. And only 26 percent of them are married – compared to 65 percent of the members of World War II’s Silent Generation when they were that age.
SOURCE: Michael Guillen
U.S. News & World Report