- - Friday, March 29, 2024

As spring begins to bloom in a tense and divided American nation, many are preparing to celebrate Easter as unpredictable events and their consequences loom all around us. But how many will gather this year compared to previous years?

The recent terrorist atrocities in Moscow set against the background of the tragic war in Ukraine, as well as the tensions and trauma in Israel and Gaza, not to mention the increasingly unmanageable crisis at the U.S. southern border, where drugs, humans, and hopes are all trafficked in increasing frequency, all coalesce in the minds of many Americans to cast a little more shade than usual on the tentative, but undeniable arrival of Easter this year.

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Orthodox and Catholic Christians, Jews and Muslims, the First World, and the Global South all seem to be drawn into this spring matrix as Passover, Ramadan, and Easter are simultaneously being celebrated.

Researchers have noticed this as well, and a recent Gallup article has rung the alarm bells with new research indicating that religious attendance in the U.S. has dropped. Studies suggest that weekly attendance for all religions has fallen to 30%.

This sounds almost European in its apocalypticism, where religious attendance is at an all-time low according to a Bertelsmann Stiftung study last fall. And indeed, these trends have not gone unnoticed on this side of the pond.

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Jeffrey Jones noted last year in a Gallup article that the COVID-19 pandemic may have impacted church attendance, with 34% attending between 2016-2019 down to 31% between 2020-2023. Adam Gabbatt, in the Guardian, conceded that there seemed to be a precipitous decline in church health in America, citing research done by Lifeway and Pew suggesting churches were closing faster than they were opening and that those who identified as Christians had fallen from 92% in 1970 to 64% in 2020.

Indeed, Pew, Lifeway, the American Enterprise Institute, and a host of other research institutions all agree that there is a noticeable rise in those who have no religious affiliation at the expense of churches and denominations.

It sounds gloomy, but that may depend on where you stand.

If you are young, liberal, and single, you are less likely to be a regular attendee, according to research coming from the American Enterprise Institute. Research at Pew corroborates this with evidence that points to the growing religious demographic of “nones” who are religiously unaffiliated. Between 2009 and 2019, those who identified as “Christian” dropped from 77% to 65%, while those who described themselves as unaffiliated grew from 16% to 26%, mainly at the expense of traditional Christian denominations.

But if you are Mormon, 68% attend weekly, and Protestants and Catholics attend church at 44% and 33%, respectively. Still, other religions only make up 6% of the religious landscape in America. If you are from the Silent Generation (born between 1928-45), 84% consider themselves Christians, with Boomers at 76% but with Millennials dipping below the halfway mark at 49%.

When global statistics are brought to bear on our unique American experience, the one major group of religiously unaffiliated that is declining the most are atheists.

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So, what are we to make of this numerical salad of statistics? The tendency toward declining church attendance, affiliation, and participation is a feature of the new religious landscape, especially in America. That has implications for politics, commerce, culture, and demographics.

But is this inevitable, or even a net negative?

When viewed from the broader lens of religious history, particularly Christian history, the reach of Christianity has gone through ebbs and troughs. Consider Christianity at the end of late antiquity, stretching from Ireland to Armenia and from the Black Sea to Ethiopia. For a thousand years following this peak, it would languish under Islamic domination in the east, Mongol and Tartar tyranny in the north, and Viking or Norman raiders in the west. Then, in the 1700s and on the backs of European ascendancy, it would rise precipitously. Since 1900, Christianity has grown from 500 million to 2.6 billion. Pentecostals have increased the most dramatically, from 900,000 to 681 million today. Africa is now the most significant Christian continent, with close to 800 million, and the global south now outnumbers the global north by almost 1 billion Christians.

Peaks and troughs come and go, but Christianity has continued to grow. In times of affluence, it has built cathedrals and painted art unrivaled in magnificence. It has produced sages, mystics, and martyrs in times of adversity beyond parallel. Perhaps the words of the late Pope Benedict XVI about the church in the future were prophetic: the “church will be more spiritual, poorer, less political; a church of the little ones.” Indeed, Jesus promised that his kingdom was not of this world and that to enter it, one had to become one of these little ones (The Gospel of St. Matthew 18).

Church attendance in America may be on the wane, but no one knows the future and what surprising transformations lie ahead. Who would have thought that Nero’s Rome would bow the knee to Christ, that Vikings would one day be Pentecostal missionaries, that Iran would have the fastest-growing church in the world, or that the Soviet Union would be inherited by an orthodox Russia building three new churches every day?

G.K. Chesterton once said Christianity has died many times but has always risen again. As this Easter draws near in a world of terror and war, the words of Jesus have a special ring: “Rejoice! I have overcome the world!” (Gospel of St. John 16:33).

Dr. John-Paul Lotz is associate professor at the Regent University School of Divinity, located in Virginia Beach, VA.

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