Is Christianity Shrinking in America? Yes and No

By J. Warner Wallace Published on March 9, 2018

It’s a common question asked by church leaders and laity: “Is American Christianity waning as our nation becomes more secular?” The statistics seem to support a “yes” answer to this question. I’ve been collecting data on this issue for over ten years. The surveys (more than 50 I’ve chronicled so far) reveal a disturbing, albeit unified, trend: Fewer people claim a Christian affiliation than ever before, and those who claim no religious affiliation are the fastest growing group in America.

Despite these statistics, a recent article argues that religion “continues to enjoy ‘persistent and exceptional intensity’ in America.” Glenn Stanton, writing at The Federalist, describes research done by scholars at Harvard University and Indiana University, Bloomington. These researchers have concluded that America “remains an exceptional outlier and potential counter example to the secularization thesis.” So, which is it? Is religion in America waning or enjoying “persistent and exceptional intensity”? Is the Christian Church shrinking or intensifying? The answer is: “both.”

As it turns out, many of the people who identify themselves as Christians don’t actually know much about Christianity.

Let me illustrate. Rummage through your closet and find an empty shoe box. Bring it into your kitchen and find a pot that will fit in the shoebox (one that is about three-quarters the size of the box). Put the pot in the shoebox, and then search for the smallest teacup you own, or better yet, an espresso cup. Place this small cup in the pot. Now you’re ready to understand what’s happening to the American Church.

The Box

The shoebox represents everyone in America; believers and unbelievers, alike. If you’re a Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist or agnostic, you’re in the shoebox. This box represents 100 percent of our national population.

The Pot

The pot represents everyone who identifies as a Christian. All the different denominations of Christianity are represented by the pot. Right now, that pot is less than three-quarters the size of the box. The most recent surveys reveal the number of self-proclaimed Christians to be shrinking dramatically at about one percent a year. At present, about 70 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians.

The Espresso Cup

As it turns out, many of the people in the pot who identify themselves in this way don’t actually know much about Christianity. A recent Barna Group study revealed that only 17 percent of Christians “who consider their faith important and attend church regularly actually have a biblical worldview.”

The study cited by Stanton in The Federalist also found that only 40 percent of Americans say they have “strong religious affiliations,” even though many more claim a Christian identity. In addition, only 33 percent of our population describes the Bible as the “Literal Word of God.” So, who’s in the espresso cup? Those who claim to be Christians and actually know what Christianity teaches. “Espresso cup” Christians are strongly affiliated with the faith, attend church, believe the Bible, and have allowed it to shape the way they view the world. How large is the cup? It’s hard to say, precisely, but one thing is for sure: it’s only a fraction of the pot, and it appears to be a small fraction.

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Now that we’ve assembled our object lesson, let’s use it to draw some conclusions about what’s happening (and may continue to happen) in America today. All the studies I’ve assembled agree: the pot is shrinking. Fewer people claim a Christian affiliation than ever before. They are jumping out of the pot and into the box.

At the same time, the scholars at Harvard and Indiana have highlighted something important: The espresso cup isn’t shrinking. There is a remnant within the church that continues to pursue their religious affiliation with vigor and purpose. Despite cultural pressures and the inclination toward secularization, this “core” remains a committed, albeit small, group. The pot is shrinking toward the size of the cup, as casual, less affiliated believers jump from the pot to the box.

Sharing the Truth

There’s a lesson in this for those of us who care about the future of the Church in America. The more engaged and knowledgeable we are as Christians, the more likely we are to be in the cup, rather than the pot. In fact, recent studies show that churches committed to teaching classic Christian principles (like the physical resurrection of Jesus, the efficacy of prayer and the reliability of the Bible) are far more likely to grow than churches avoiding such theological truths. Theology and rationality matter.

Christianity may be shrinking, but it’s also flourishing. You and I can still make a difference.

What’s more, the people jumping out of the pot seldom identify as atheists or agnostics. Instead, they just claim no religious affiliation. This means they are still largely open to hearing a reasoned, accurate and articulate description of the Christian worldview. They were once interested in Christianity, and many remain interested in God. We still have a chance to reach them before they abandon their religious interests altogether.

Finally, the people who jumped out of the pot still know people in the cup. They used to attend church with us, after all. They are still our neighbors, our relatives, our co-workers, our children. We know them, and they know us. Who’s better positioned to share the truth?

If you’re reading this article and consider yourself an “espresso cup” Christian, it’s time to identify the Christians you know who are still in the pot, or have recently jumped into the box. Engage them, show them, teach them. Help them see why Christianity matters; why it’s true and how it has changed your life. There are more than enough people in the cup to change the size of the pot. Christianity may be shrinking, but it’s also flourishing. You and I can still make a difference.


J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids and Forensic Faith.

Originally published at Christian Post. Reprinted with permission.

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  • Ben Willard

    The same could be said about marriage. That Christians get divorced at the same rate as the world. It is the pot that is being measured and not the cup.

    • Oddly enough, you can get some of the most vile responses (from Boxers and Potters alike) by stating the simple fact that just because someone claims Christ does not mean that Christ has claimed them. Putting it less theologically, just because they claim to be a Christian doesn’t mean they are one.

      • Kathy

        Absolutely, William…I can relate to being one of those who just claimed to be a Christian until Christ Himself claimed me just 6 years ago.

        • In my case, although I was raised in a Catholic family, I felt “driven out”, and fled into atheism until my 40th year, when God Himself witnessed to me (I was so virulent that no one would witness to me, but there was one young woman who, although lacking the courage to witness to me, cared enough to beat the doors of Heaven into powder and pulp with her prayers until God could take no more and did the witnessing job Himself). I used to ask Him what my particular role was, and would get a one-word reply that would always leave me fighting tears, because it was not what I wanted to hear, that one word indicating that I would likely account for zero converts. That one-word reply, though, was recently confirmed when a new coworker, while speaking with me, asked God what MY life verse is.

          The answer: Jeremiah 1:5-9.

          • Kathy

            You have an interesting tale to tell. I realize I may as well have been an atheist despite appearing in church regularly…even though I never outright rejected God, I didn’t pay Him too much mind during the week. Complete turnaround after I was “overtaken” by the Holy Spirit. Thought at the time “I must have finally done something right”, but quickly realized it was God opening my eyes and heart to Him…it was nothing I did. Yes, inspiring verse…we are not transformed to keep it to ourselves, we are to share that Good News!

        • mdemetrius

          In street ministry, I never ask a person “are you a Christian?” because everybody is a Christian, from the White House to the jailhouse” (as Leonard Ravenhill famously said). I ask them “Where do you stand with Jesus?” or something more like that. It takes about one second to know if the person is living for the Lord or not.

          • Kathy

            You are so right! It’s very disturbing now to hear people say they are “good to go” because they attend a certain church, or that their good deeds outweigh the bad ones, etc. Thank you for standing for Christ and following through with His commission!

          • Kathy

            Just thought of something else…I learned this just a few years ago. You may already know this, but if you happen to witness to a Jewish person during your street ministry, it’s not necessary that they become a Christian. They can continue practicing their Jewish traditions and customs by becoming a Messianic Jew and attending their synagogue. They are Jewish believers in Yeshua. There are actually Gentiles there as well. If you aren’t familiar with that faith tradition, you can look it up or I can tell you a little more about it.

          • mdemetrius

            I once told a very religious (but lost) person, “It’s not important what the name over the door of your meeting hall is: it’s important what the name over the door of your heart is.” Similar thinking.

          • Kathy

            I like it! I tell those who believe only their particular church is the way to salvation something similar, but I will have to remember that. Thanks!

      • mdemetrius

        Right. The 83% who identify as Christians in the article, are they really what they say? Will “cultural christianity” get one past the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven?

  • Freedom foundation

    The lukewarm pew-fillers are leaving, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    • Ronky

      Of course it’s a bad thing! They are going even further away from God! We should be trying to get them to move in the other direction!

      • mdemetrius

        To do that, something must be done to fix the problems that they’re moving away from. Ronky, they’re not all leaving because they are moving further away from God. Many are leaving a dead room to *find* God. God doesn’t dwell in a house made by human hands, in either Testament.

      • Vincent J.

        Nobody can come to the Son unless the Father draws them to the Son. Nobody can know the Father unless the Son reveals the Father to them.

        Don’t try to accomplish great things. Allow God to use you to be a witness, if that’s what He wants to do.

    • Of course it’s a bad thing. We are called to evangelize for a reason. To expand the kingdom of God.

  • Diane Peske

    This article confirms something I say to my husband regularly. Every time I want to scream and yell at God about American Christian decay I hear back in my head thand answer God gave to Elijah: “I’ve reserved 3000 who haven’t bowed the knee to Baal.” I draw comfort from this article that confirms this even as I am challenged and determined to live/teach/ preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ

  • Vincent J.

    Many are called (the pot), but few are chosen (the tea cup).

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