A new Pew Research Center survey suggests that those who identify as Christian have dramatically declined in the past decade, while those with no religious affiliation have dramatically increased. Is this a harbinger of the demise—as many hope—of Christianity? Does this suggest that Christianity—as many hope—is irrelevant? Does this mean—as many hope—that there are fewer committed disciples of Jesus Christ?
In a word, no.
The flaw with these surveys and their interpreters is they observe political/social/cultural Christianity declining and, according to their worldview, this means that Christianity is less relevant, or dying. The truth is, Christians in every age—those faithful disciples of Jesus Christ who strive to conform their lives to the Gospels—were in the minority, and often a negligible minority from a statistical standpoint. Some ages had many political/social/cultural Christians (people whose power, fortunes, or reputations were enhanced by identifying with Catholicism—“The crown of France is worth a Mass a week”), making these seem to be “Christian” countries, while some ages had fewer of these cultural Christians. Worse yet is the conscription of Christianity to supply political or mercantile projects a veneer of legitimacy.
Isn’t superficial, or worse—opportunistic, Christianity a spiritual condition that Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, and John Henry Newman confronted in their writings? They clearly understand the gulf between nominally and authentic Christian cultures.
It’s always been dangerous to take Christianity seriously in one’s daily life. Joan of Arc, who challenged 15th century France (and England, for that matter) to embrace authentic Christianity; Thomas More, who defied the worldly Henry VIII when accommodation was the “practical” response; Pierre-Jean De Smet, the Black Gown (priest) who tirelessly served native Americans in the 19th century when many thought them little better than animals; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted the Nazis and paid with his life—were they honored by many of their countrymen in their lifetimes? Why did Christians face persecution in all times and places if committed disciples haven’t always been in the minority?
History actually tells a different story than most historians do. Peter and Paul go to pagan Rome, the seat of world power, and capture legions of hearts for Christ. Patrick, a former slave in druidic Ireland, returns to the land of his bondage and converts the people to Christ. Cyril and Methodius go into the heart of Dark Ages Europe and sow good seed that bears fruit to this day. Francis Xavier travels to lands steeped in Hinduism, Islam, the teaching of Lao-Tse and the Buddha and converts tens of thousands; one or two or a handful (plus the Holy Spirit) in the midst of thousands and millions. How important were surveys and statistics to these disciples?
This isn’t to suggest that those who aren’t committed disciples are outside of the mercy of God. All we have to do is consider the Samaritan woman at the well, the good thief on the cross, or the publican who humbly prayed in the rear of the temple, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner”, to recall that God is always beckoning, right up to the last moment. And of course, even committed disciples have blind spots, human weaknesses, and sinful inclinations. Every soul is precious, but we can’t measure the impact of Christianity by the number of people who identify as Christian. Rather, it’s the degree to which the Holy Spirit is “free” to act in the Church that matters, as demonstrated when the Church was comprised of just a few hundred disciples.
Today we find numerous lay groups and religious orders—some populated with young Christians—that are on fire, along with reformed seminaries that are producing superior priests.
Interpretation of surveys like this one are often intended to sow doubt in Christians and to discourage seekers from converting to a now “irrelevant”, “passé”, “anachronistic” Christianity. Let’s not kid ourselves; many live lavishly off people who are spiritually and morally adrift. The last thing these people want is committed Christians, people who strive to live virtuously and to use freedom well. These masters of manipulation employ all the tools of propagandistic advertising and technology to keep people pliable and receptive to the “wares” they’re selling.
What we should remember is that Christianity has nothing to do with surveys, statistics, popularity, or the approbation of governments and societies. In a certain sense (the Lord said so), the Church is stronger when she is weaker in the world’s eyes. We are called to labor in the culture as it is, as Patrick, Juan Diego, Francis Xavier, Isaac Jogues, Mother Teresa, and so many other committed disciples did, and are now doing.