The Myth of the Dying Church

How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and the World


By Glenn T. Stanton

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Stop believing the false narrative that Christianity is declining, and discover the truth about the health of the church in America and around the world.

Much has been made of the so-called “nones” – those who claim no spiritual affiliation. Media has spun the nones into a chicken-little the sky is falling narrative. The nones are an infamously difficult subsection to understand and there is a lot of false information on them. Glenn Stanton believes the nones story has become overblown and has become “a thing” due to curiosity and repetition of their supposed irreligiosity. THE MYTH OF THE DYING CHURCH digs deeply into the research concerning spirituality in America and reveals the hope and truth about the vitality and future of the church.




Do you know what one of the biggest lies about the church is today? It’s actually been going around for a number of years now. You may have even innocently passed along this false information to others. After all, you’ve received your information from reliable resources—pastors and other Christian leaders, authors and the news media, pollsters. They proclaim often and with great confidence that the number of people who claim to be Christians is shrinking drastically while the number of “nones” (those who are religiously unaffiliated) is growing like weeds. Therefore, the church will soon disappear.

This news is certainly disturbing to all who love Jesus and His church and who desire to spread the life-giving gospel. Even more alarming, though, is how many Christians have bought this news as truth and allowed it to weaken their faith and put their churches on the defensive (if not cause them to lie down and wait to die).

But I have good news for you: IT’S SIMPLY NOT TRUE!

It is important to understand what is really, truly happening with the church today. In this book, I explore and present in an understandable way data from leading academic sources today that provides a broad array of the best evidence for significant hopefulness. Our exploration will also help us understand how and why so many smart and well-intentioned people have gotten it so wrong in their understanding of the state of the church today.

Let me provide you with a quick summary of the truth on the matter in plain language:

1. Liberal churches are hemorrhaging members. Churches that are bailing on Christian orthodoxy—those denying the deity of Christ; rejecting the reality of sin; doubting the historical reality of Christ’s death and resurrection; and embracing abortion, gay, and gender politics—are all in a drastic free fall. People are leaving those churches as though the buildings were on fire. They can’t get out fast enough.

2. Biblical churches are holding strong. Churches that are faithfully preaching, teaching, and practicing biblical truths and conservative theology are holding stable overall. Some are seeing steady growth and others are exploding. No small number are pressed thin with the good problem of figuring out how to manage their growing crowds. You likely know of a few in your own community; perhaps you even attend one of these churches.

3. Church attendance is at an all-time high. More Americans, in raw numbers and as a percentage of the population, attend church today than at any other time in our nation’s history, including the colonial days. That’s hardly scary news.

4. More young adults attend biblically faithful churches today than attended nearly fifty years ago. According to some of the best sociological data, the percentage of young adults regularly attending evangelical and nondenominational churches has roughly doubled between 1972 and today.

5. Atheism and agnosticism are not growing wildly. Both have grown in the last few years, but they are an extreme minority, counting for just about 7 percent of all US adults.

6. The Nones are not new unbelievers. The infamous “nones”—those reporting to have no particular institutional faith—are indeed a growing category. This has been widely reported. But there is something very important to note here: they are not a new category. They are not folks who have left a once living faith but rather are those who merely had a cold or lukewarm family history of church identity and now feel more comfortable saying, “I don’t really identify with anything.” It’s not a change in belief. Instead, it’s an honest explanation for where they’ve always been.

7. Global growth of Christianity is booming. The number of Christians in the world today is larger than it has ever been in the history of the world and will continue to increase through the coming decades. The story here is incredibly positive. Scholars studying this phenomenon use words like explosive and mushrooming to describe Christianity’s global growth, particularly in China and Southern Asia, Africa, and South America.

These things describe the true state of the Christian faith in both America and around the world as recorded by leading sociologists of religion who employ an array of different means to study the phenomenon and who have no particular commitment or interest in reaching any specific finding. They are simply looking at the numbers as honestly as they can and reporting their findings. This book tells the story of these findings—examining important details, uncovering critical nuances, and explaining how conclusions are reached—and what it all means for the future of Jesus’s church and its life-giving mission in the world.

Here is the path we will take in our exploration. First, we will set up the situation and consider the different claims made by various voices predicting Christianity’s impending demise to see how sensational so much of it is. Next, over a number of chapters, we will carefully examine the breadth of fascinating research showing where church growth and decline are taking place and how proper interpretation tells a very hopeful story both in terms of which churches and traditions are shrinking and which are growing.

We then examine some extremely encouraging research on how it’s very possible for parents to successfully pass on their faith to their children by providing a few basic experiences for their children. In fact, it’s very likely most parents who do these things will succeed in raising kids with an enduring faith. Doing so is not rocket science, there’s no secret formula, nor is it a crapshoot. It’s relatively simple, and any parent can do it regardless of education, income, or spiritual maturity. Parents don’t even have to do it perfectly. How encouraging is that?

We will also take a quick look at how so many good and smart people could come to the wrong conclusions and how these conclusions have taken a deep root in the media and our collective conscience. As we will learn, anyone interested in the truth should not rely on one study here or another there—which most people reporting bad news unfortunately do—but should consider the larger collection of research conducted by reputable sociologists of religion and polling organizations.

Next, we will observe how the gospel spreads from generation to generation and how the Holy Spirit, who has been directing us in all truth and animating and empowering the church since the day of Pentecost, is certainly not asleep at the wheel. He is not on vacation, He has not weakened, and the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s church—just as Jesus promised in Matthew 16:18. This is perhaps the most important thing we must grasp here.

We will end by looking at the future of the Christian faith and what we all need from the church as it goes forth into the world with the life-giving and world-changing power of the gospel.

Let me be very clear on an important note. I am not claiming that everything is all hunky-dory for the church today. There are many issues of concern, such as declines in basic biblical and theological knowledge and in an essential Christian worldview. There are increases in a consumer-oriented, entertainment-driven Christian culture in the West. Too much teaching and preaching in the church and Christian media today is merely self-help theory dressed up with Bible verses. But there are many positive signs as well. So, all in all, I have very good news for you: the sky is not falling, and that’s the story I am going to tell you here.



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.

Yes, some churches are struggling, and even declining. Others are aging and unable to connect with younger generations, and still others have faced crises with church staff and church splits. But these are not due to a “Christian recession” but simply because of issues within those particular churches, which is an important distinction. I’ll bet a week’s worth of lunch money that your church is chugging along well. The odds are totally in my favor. We all need to be more informed to know the truth in this area. Christians are born again, but we shouldn’t act like we were born yesterday.

The other Chicken Little narrative is more specific, concerning our own children and their friends. It claims some of them—if not most of them—are highly unlikely to hang on to their faith as they get older. Try as you might, good and faithful Christian parents, but your efforts to pass on your faith to your children are going to fail. Countless blog articles and books published by Christian leaders espouse this, often based on their own research. Here are examples:

• Leading Christian author: “Young people are leaving the church in droves,” reflected in “staggering numbers” of those who say they no longer believe.

• Major Christian magazine advertisement: “This generation of teens is the largest in history—and current trends show that only 4 percent will be evangelical believers by the time they become adults. Compare this with 34 percent of adults today who are evangelicals. We are on the verge of a catastrophe.”

• Newsletter from a parachurch organization: “Up to 90 percent or more of Christian kids will leave the church by the time they reach adulthood.”

• Headline from an evangelical research company report: “Most Twenty-Somethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years”

• Youth ministry publication: “86% of evangelical youth drop out of church after graduation, never to return.”

• Well-known teacher at a major evangelical school: “According to present trends, we are about to eternally lose the second largest generation in America’s history.”

• Advertisement for a book: Young adults who are leaving the church are “a black hole” in contemporary Christianity.

Seriously? A black hole? A sucking, gaping hole of nothingness that pulls everything around it into utter darkness? Please! Chicken Little would be green with envy at such dramatics. To make it all worse, statements regarding a supposed decline of Christianity are usually preceded with the confident admission, “As we all know, Christianity in our nation is…” Surely you can easily name similar examples that have gotten your attention and caused you no small amount of angst. Unfortunately they are not hard to find.

At the risk of sounding irreverent, God must be totally freaking out over this news. For the first time since Pentecost, His gospel—not to mention the unquenchable Holy Spirit—seems to be failing to penetrate an entire generation. Christ’s church is like a 2008 pre-bailout car lot! Empty pews, with only a smattering of white-haired congregants! The youth, a black hole!

As we will see in chapter 11, we must realize that buying this terribly bad news has huge implications for our understanding of and confidence in how God actually works through the history of His church. Believing that the church is dying impacts how we comprehend the beauty of His irresistible grace and the power of His hand to reach into our communities, not to mention His sovereignty. That hand is unspeakably more powerful than these headlines and the supposed statistics behind them allow for. The Holy Spirit is not walking with a limp or asleep at the wheel.

Professor Bradley R. E. Wright, a noted sociologist at the University of Connecticut—and an evangelical Christian—has studied faith trends among old and young adults over the generations and categorically rejects the Chicken Little scenario. He says it’s easy to refute these dire predictions and put the entire situation into perspective by simply looking at recent spiritual giants and their impact on recent generations.

Like Professor Wright, I’m a child of the 1970s, and our generation early on was not a group of thriving Christian stalwarts, by any measure. The generation before us? The hippies. There were all turning on, tuning in, and dropping out, as Timothy Leary famously put it. They didn’t inspire any confidence in the future from their own parents or nearly any other adults. If these kids paid any attention to Jesus at all, He was a “groovy cat” who drifted from place to place, with His robe, long hair, and leather sandals, begging for food and talking about peace, love, and understanding. The original hippie. There was every reason to be concerned about the future of the church, if not society as whole, in the hands of this generation.

But as this generation entered early adulthood, thousands of them began to lead one of the largest periods of growth in evangelical history and one of the most powerful moves of God in the past one hundred years: the Jesus movement, of which I’m a very grateful beneficiary. Many of these shaggy-haired, torn jeans–wearing, sandal-shod, rock ’n’ roll–playing young people grew to be extremely influential pastors who have preached God’s Word with great clarity and truthfulness. They ended up calling people to an obedient discipleship, teaching evangelism, and leading explosively growing churches. Greg Laurie, Rick Warren, and Franklin Graham are but three representative examples. There are hundreds more. This was the generation that initiated the phenomenon of the megachurch, which we will examine later. They ushered in the remarkably influential contemporary Christian music scene through artists such as Larry Norman, Love Song, Phil Keaggy, Keith Green, Randy Stonehill, 2nd Chapter of Acts, Resurrection Band, Petra, and Mustard Seed Faith, just to name a few.

More extremely effectual leaders continued to come along after them, and the church continues to grow in important sectors today. The church establishment of the early 1960s never would have put a plug nickel on that shaggy bunch of youngsters, and they were proven wrong. Dramatically so! God is in the business of doing remarkable things in confounding ways with very unlikely people.

It is a sociological truism that what one generation is today in its youth is often not what it grows up to be. As an interesting aside, do the math on the BMW-driving yuppies, 1980s DINKs, and the Reagan generation who came to dominate the American scene. Hint: They were in their teens during the late 1960s and early ’70s. In the history of mankind, it is the rare generation of adults who thought the next generation of youth was set to usher in a brighter future of faith, fidelity, and fortune. Today is no different. “Kids these days” is an ancient and ever-present phrase representing the uneasiness and anxiety of the “get off my lawn” adults.

Over the coming chapters, we will explore what the best and larger body of serious research says about the state of the church today. It’s a remarkable story, and one that is actually much more exciting and hopeful than I expected to find when I started the research for this book.



The answer to the question of whether Christianity is shrinking or not is both yes and no. This seemingly contradictory answer is the key to understanding the truth of the current and future state of the church. But for a people of faith committed to truth and used to dealing in the absolute categories of black and white, right and wrong, true and false, how can we accept the right answer being two clear opposites?

Let’s get to examining what the best data actually shows, and we’ll see how the numbers reveal the real guts and truth of the story. In a few words, the story is this:

Some parts of the church are indeed shrinking and some are not at all. Some are doing quite well, even growing. But which parts of the church are shrinking and to what degree? And which churches are doing well?

These are the two fundamental questions. Let me explain our path of exploration in the coming chapters as we examine the research. We will move across the lake from the shore of confusion to the opposite shore of clarity, stepping on the orderly stones that are the findings of the most notable professional research, journal articles, and reports from leading mainstream organizations that track church growth and decline numbers. We won’t rely on news stories or organizations that are identified with a particular faith tradition. We will not be relying on one or two sources, the common problem in most reporting on and retelling of this story. We will be taking a much wider, deeper approach and get up to our elbows in the mixing bowl of this research, but in a very readable, direct, and easy-to-understand way.

To employ another metaphor here, like students on a guided tour, we will stop by, be introduced to, and check in with the essential original voices and leading experts on our topic to see what they have to teach us. This is really the only way we can get the actual, reliable picture of things.


On Sale
Jun 18, 2019
Page Count
224 pages
Worthy Books

Glenn T. Stanton

About the Author

GLENN T. STANTON is the director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family. He debates and lectures extensively on the issues of gender, sexuality, marriage and parenting at universities and churches around the world.

Stanton also served the George W. Bush administration for many years as a consultant on increasing fatherhood involvement in the Head Start program. Stanton is the author of eight books on marriage and families and a regular columnist for various blogs. He is also the co-writer of “Irreplaceable” a film seen in theatres nationwide, and the co-author and creator of “The Family Project,” a 12-session small group DVD curriculum produced by Focus on the Family. Stanton earned bachelor’s degrees in communication, arts, and religion, and a master’s degree in philosophy, history and religion from the University of West Florida.

Learn more about this author