Is Religious Practice Dying in America? Not So Fast, Say Experts
Is religious practice in America dying? If taken at face value, the conclusion of recent studies is clear: the U.S. is becoming increasingly secular. However, other studies continue to show that religious practice leads to increased happiness, less depression, and more involvement in community life, with a religious upbringing leading to positive outcomes in adulthood. In the end, experts say, what remains evident is that despite numerous challenges and a changing landscape, Christianity in America isn’t going anywhere.
Reports that American religion is dying are greatly exaggerated, says sociologist Byron R. Johnson and epidemiologist Jeff Levin in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. They argue that while mainline Christian denominations are clearly losing members, there is little evidence that these former mainline members are giving up on the faith completely. Rather, they are merely switching to other lesser-known denominations and faiths. Johnson and Levin contend that studies trumpeting the rise of the “Nones” (those who say they have no religious affiliation) are making the critical error of lumping those who classify themselves as part of lesser-known denominations and church plants (or “Others”) with actual Nones, which artificially inflates the numbers of actual Nones.
This argument fits with that of sociologist Brad Wilcox in a recent article for the Institute for Family Studies. In it, he maintains that despite church scandals, liberal academic and ex-believer hit jobs, and a consistently negative legacy media narrative, religious practice continues to provide adherents with increased rates of happiness, less depression, and more involvement in community life when compared to non-believers and those who are religiously inactive.
The importance of a grounding in religious practice at an early age is also a clear indicator of an assortment of positive outcomes, Wilcox asserts. He pointed to research done by Baylor University which found that:
Adult men and women who attended religious services at least weekly at age 12 were more likely to report that they were currently “very happy,” more likely to report that they receive “a lot” of attention from others, and less likely to indicate that they were frequently bored, when compared to those who attended less frequently or not at all. For instance, those who attended as children were about 6 percentage points more likely to report they were “very happy” as adults and 9 percentage points less likely to report they were “frequently bored.”
George Barna is a senior research fellow at Family Research Council’s Center for Biblical Worldview and a professor and the Director of Research at the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University. His research confirms Wilcox’s contention that a worldview formed early in life is immensely important to the beliefs that a person holds for the remainder of their earthly journey.
“The bulk of a person’s worldview is formed by the age of 13,” he told The Washington Stand. “That worldview is based on core beliefs and values, resulting in the filter through which we make our behavioral choices. The failure to raise a child to be a disciple of Jesus — that is, to know the foundational principles of the Christian faith and to live accordingly — has a strong correlation with the child growing up without a serious, transformational commitment to Christ.”
Barna went on to note how crucial parental involvement is in forming a child’s worldview.
“Parents are the most important role model in a child’s life,” he said. “We cannot simply talk about the Christian faith; we must consistently speak and behave in harmony with basic biblical principles. That includes intentionally teaching those ways to our children and complimenting them when they live in that manner. Having earnest, daily conversations with them about what we do, why we do it, and how it relates to God’s truth is critical toward shaping their mind and heart into conformity with God’s ways.”
Dr. Jennifer Bauwens serves as director of the Center for Family Studies at Family Research Council. She concurred with the studies cited by Wilcox and others showing that religious practice provides positive outcomes in light of her own previous experience as a clinician and in academia.
“This isn’t the first study that has reflected this outcome,” Bauwens told The Washington Stand. “A researcher from Duke will be publishing a handbook on the benefits of religious experience, not just in mental health, but [general] health — lots of positive outcomes with religious identification and mental wellbeing. The short answer is, yes, the research all points towards this outcome, and the people that I’ve worked with at the clinical level, those who have some kind of religious background, really fare better than those who have no religious identification.”
She went on to observe that a dip in religious practice, particular among younger generations, is coinciding with increased mental health problems.
“The research has shown that Gen Z is one of the least Christian [generations] … It does raise questions as to, ‘is there a real relationship between the amount of religious identification and the mental health problems that we see in Gen Z?’ And of course there’s a whole host of other factors, but from my perspective and spiritual understanding, I would say there is certainly a significant relationship there.”
In light of increased secularization, the American church is grappling with finding effective ways to communicate the importance of religious practice to nonbelievers. Bauwens shared that the answer may be more simple than many realize.
“I think just by being our authentic selves,” she emphasized. “For example, I went to get my hair cut a few weeks ago, and I’ve been seeing this person for about a year, and she just stopped in the middle of cutting my hair and she said, ‘You know God.’ And I said, ‘I do. I have a relationship with Jesus.’ And she goes, ‘But you’re different than others. You have joy.’ And I said, ‘I do. It has come through a deep relationship and connection with someone who is bigger than me, and I know that he has my best interests at heart, and so I live in a place of trust.’ I think our communication is in words, but it’s also just in the righteousness and peace and joy that we carry that makes a world that is shaking [notice us]. We’re very attractive when we’re not shaken in the midst of the shaking. I think just being authentic is really attractive for this world right now.”
While Johnson and Levin present evidence of an evolving landscape of religious practice in the U.S. that points toward a deemphasis on denominational identity, Bauwens made it clear that the religious structure that a church provides should never be underestimated in the quest for truly life-giving faith.
“On the one hand, going to church and having a religious structure, it goes to the heart of Proverbs where it says, ‘Without a vision, the people parish,’ or another translation, ‘Without a vision, the people live unrestrained.’ And certainly we’re seeing that in our day. People are living unrestrained — they have no vision. I think church attendance can be an organizing idea of purpose for one’s life, and I think that can be good. Obviously, I’d love it to be communicated from a need for salvation, experience, and relationship with Jesus.”
“On the other hand,” she continued, “I do worry that if church experience is of a Pharisaical nature, that it can serve to inoculate someone from the gospel, where they may think, ‘I know that I already did that, and it didn’t help.’ I wouldn’t just say to someone, ‘Go to any church.’ I’d say, ‘Find a life-giving church. Find a church where the Bible is fully preached and that there’s an emphasis on having a relationship with a Person and the Bible, that it’s not just an idea or a Western philosophy but a meaningful relationship with the word and the Spirit.”
Dan Hart is senior editor at The Washington Stand.