The State of the Church (for numbers nerds)

This one is for all you numbers nerds out there: a new state of the US Church study has come out from the Barna Group, evaluating primarily the distinctions between those (roughly 75%) of Americans who claim to be Christian and those (roughly 33%) who are “practicing” Christians (measured by at least monthly church attendance). I find it interesting, but like most of these, I’m not sure how much it really means.

Some might look at the numbers as a cause for concern about the state of US Christianity, but I’m not really concerned about a Christian tribal identity, or about who is or who isn’t going to church. It’s hard to find a real narrative here: lots of churches do great work, spiritually and materially in their communities. Lots of churches don’t do much at all. Some churches are downright poisonous.

As always, I struggle to find myself or Ravensworth somewhere in the numbers, and I wonder what researchers would make of us if we ever were selected for random trials. The really frustrating part of studies like these is that whenever researchers think they are being clever by digging deeper into questions of belief to really pick apart who is a Christian and who claims to be, they inevitably cede theological ground to the most conservative interpretations of Christianity. They implicitly define Christianity based on their personal frame of reference. They want to know who believes in Hell and Satan, or how many Christians believe that they Bible is “accurate” (whatever that means), etc. As if these weren’t debates within Christianity that were literally over 1000 years old. If you disagree with too many of the “orthodox” positions (yet calling them that completely ignores how recent many conservative interpretations are, and how ancient many liberal positions), you are labeled “Post-Christian.” So I find myself bordering “post-Christian” yet squarely in “practicing Christian” categories by their measures.

I suspect this is because researchers are concerned (or just curious) with the state of American Religion as a social institution, and I am more concerned with the state of the Gospel: Who cares what we say we are? I want to know how many people feel that they are loved and accepted, how many feel compelled to share that love with others, and how many feel that they have been able to break down barriers of class or race or gender or religion in their worldview and relationships because they believe that all are children of God.

In other words, who cares how many Christians there are, I’m much more interested in how many Americans are trying to follow Christ.

Still. Numbers are fun.

Read the report for the Barna Group here.

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