Poor Chicken Little.
She freaked out about nearly everything and cried constantly about the apocalyptic doom that was going to rain down upon everyone’s heads, literally.1 But in reality, the sky wasn’t falling at all. It was just an acorn submitting to the everyday laws of gravity and landing on Chicken Little’s soft cranial palate that caused her hysteria. Of course, she doesn’t keep the freak-out to herself. And it spreads like a cold, as freak-outs are inclined to do.
On her way to warn the king about this terrible news, she bumps into all her rhyming-named woodland friends—Foxy Loxy, Turkey Lurkey, Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey, and the rest of the crew—and alerts them of the coming Armageddon. They take her pronouncement unquestionably as truth and all join in the hysterics, spreading the disconcerting news to the whole village.
This famous folktale has been told from generation to generations across many countries for well over a hundred and fifty years because it speaks to a global truth. Bad news, even when false, travels fast. Of course, this story has a very direct correlation to the reported steep decline and impending demise of the Christian church. On this topic there are far too many Chicken Littles today, and their tale of the falling-acorn-turned-Armageddon has unfortunately become unquestioned and indisputable fact as they claim the following for all to hear and fear:
Christianity is shrinking, and most are joining the ranks of the nones, especially the young people. Buses leaving hourly. Commence the hysteria.
Nearly everyone has played along, basing their opinions on a few news reports and claims from people who seem like authorities and make their statements with absolute confidence. Few take the time to dig further into the story and consult multiple sources in order to determine whether such news holds up. However, this is what detectives do—and what all good reporters once did—but most people today don’t have the time or resources to do such deep digging for themselves. That is precisely why I wrote this book. I wanted to do the digging and look at a vast array of deeply informed academic sources so I could explain the truth of the situation in clear and simple ways to help Christians, church staff, journalists, and thought leaders understand the important angles and nuances of the bigger picture.
As we will see, the facts don’t support the doom-and-gloom story the news media and many Christian leaders are reporting. There are, indeed, positive sides to the story if one reads beyond the headlines and summaries; many are very positive. An absolute wealth of information is available that tells a whole different story.
But before we address the important question of what’s true about Christianity today, we must look at what the Chicken Littles have been saying. Their tales of an impending demise of the church come in two forms: general and specific.
The general claim made is that Christianity has been declining dramatically over the last decade, with people simply losing interest in it and going elsewhere. This storyline is featured in endless publications with actual headlines such as these:
- Washington Post: “Christianity Faces Sharp Decline as Americans Are Becoming Even Less Affiliated with Religion”
- Newsmax: “Christianity Declines Sharply in US, Agnostics Growing: Pew”
- Atlantic: “America’s Empty Church Problem”
- BeliefNet: “Declining Christianity: The Exodus of the Young and the Rise of Atheism”
- National Public Radio: “Christians in U.S. on Decline as Number of ‘Nones’ Grows, Survey Finds”
- New York Times: “Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christian”
- Huffington Post: “America Is Getting Less Christian and Less Religious, Study Shows”
Sometime back in the late 2000s, while the US was experiencing a deep decline in new car sales, which initiated the massive federal bailout of the auto industry, a Christian leader2 famously said that if current trends kept up, most churches would look exactly like these deserted, tumbleweed-strewn car lots that were gracing the front pages of nearly every newspaper. Rather than the choirs, worship teams, and raucous bustles of youth groups, we were told to expect the chirping of crickets and cobwebs within the wall of most churches. You can’t get any more “the sky is falling” than that, can you?
A book reviewer for the New York Times made this assertion with absolute confidence in 2000:
Visit a church at random next Sunday and you will probably encounter a few dozen people sprinkled thinly over a sanctuary that was built to accommodate hundreds or even thousands. The empty pews and white-haired congregants lend credence to those who argue that traditional religious worship is dying out.… But the traditional church… has failed to present religion in a style that the modern world could accept and understand—and has lost touch with the evangelistic impulse that built the great congregations in the first place. To put it in business terms, the traditional church has failed to protect its franchise and its market share.3
This is a very stark picture indeed, the church on its last leg, gasping out its final breath. Someone call for last rites.
Christian Smith, one of the world’s leading sociologists of religion, examines growth and belief trends in the Christian church, and he has been long concerned about this false hysteria. He told of one whopper he saw some years ago in an advertisement in a prominent Christian magazine. The ad was for a major evangelical leadership conference, and it proclaimed that Christianity in America wouldn’t survive another decade unless we did something now. Interestingly enough, attending that conference was exactly what the church needed to do now. How about that for motivation? “Attend this conference and save Christianity in our nation, or live with the guilt that you allowed it to shrivel up and die.” That was basically the message being communicated. Smith, in good fun, hoped that someone had let God know of this terrible future.4 Let us note that that supposed decade of doom has now past, and here we still are.
No one should take these kinds of claims seriously. 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. — Glenn T. Stanton, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and the World (New York, NY: Worthy Books, 2019).