The Good News is that Most of the Bad News is Wrong: A Review of The Myth of the Dying Church By Glen Stanton

Church leaders can become discouraged, or even desperate, when they hear repeatedly that “the church is in decline” or “we are losing the youth,” or even “we are one generation from the death of Christianity.” The sources of these Chicken Little reports may be anecdotal, informal, or from respected sources. Consequently, Christian workers may be dispirited, since they are trying to buck deep trends in reaching the lost and keeping the found. The declinist narrative seems to fit the coarsening of American popular culture, the debauchery of legal decisions on abortion and same sex marriage, and our general sense of malaise and fatigue.

Although I am something of a professional curmudgeon, I must say that the good news is that most of this bad news is wrong.  The United States is certainly not experiencing a religious revival. Nor can we be happy with larger cultural trends, which come under God’s judgment. As the prophet Isaiah warned:

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter (Isaiah 5:20).

Still, according to several significant indicators, Evangelical Christianity is not losing ground in America. Reports of its decay, or even demise, are greatly exaggerated. We should thank Glenn T. Stanton for making this case in his new book, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity is Actually Thriving in America and the World. Stanton, author of eight previous books and director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, makes a convincing case that the stats demonstrate growth; he is even optimism about the state of the church in America and the world. I will review some of his findings and add insights of my own.

To start, it has been known for at least twenty years that the  “secularization thesis” is false. This sociological theory, which was propounded in the 1960s, claimed that as societies became more modern—that is, more industrialized and pluralistic—they became more secular as well. Church attendance would decline. Christian beliefs would dry up and blow away in the winds of modernity. Liberal theologian Harvey Cox even wrote a book called The Secular City (1965) which celebrated a secular version of Christianity, which was no Christianity at all. More radically a “God is dead” theology (or a-theology) sprung up to accommodate this inexorable trend toward unbelief and atheism. The cover of Time Magazine sported the words, “Is God Dead?” on April 8, 1966.[1]  Beatle and wannabe philosopher, John Lennon famously said in 1966 that “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. . . . We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary.”  The December 26, 1969 cover of Time said, “Is God Coming Back to Life?”

Sociologists such as Peter Berger, who had championed the secularization theory, later admitted it was wrong. He notes that some societies became more secular as they modernized, as in Western Europe, but many, such as America, did not. Berger, a confessed Lutheran, was happy to report the failure of his theory. This is old news, but new news to many who will read Stanton’s book.[2]

More recently, headlines tell us of “the rise of the nones” and that churches are in decline, partially because of this. What of the nones? This category describes those who claim no religious affiliation. They may or may not be atheists. On surveys, when asked for their religion, they will check “none.” They are sometimes called “nons” since they are non-affiliated. Their numbers are up, but what does it mean? Stanton, citing Ed Stetzer primarily, tells us that the nones are just being more honest about not being involved with the church. Stetzer calls this a “clarification” more than a decrease in church participation. That is, if she has almost no association with, say, the Baptist church of her youth, instead of identifying as “Baptist,” she says she has no religious affiliation.

More good news is that we are not losing young adults to the secular world in droves. Yes, some teenagers who go off to college stop attending church during that time. This may be part of exercising their independence and trying to get their sea legs as an adult. That doesn’t excuse their behavior, but many will return to the church, especially after they marry and have children. Further, fewer are failing to be involved with the church than is often reported. Stanton cites sociologist Christian Smith, the preeminent expert on the faith of teens and young adults, to make his case.

In more old news that is new news to many, Stanton reports that Christianity is not declining but exploding in what is called “the global south,” particularly in Africa. Here he draws mostly on the work of prolific  historian Philip Jenkins, whose 2002 book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity alerted many to this heartening trend. But both Islam and Christianity are growing in African. Both oppose secularism, but neither can be reconciled to the other. These two most influential missionary religions will vie for the future of Africa in our century.[3] As I write, thousands of Christians in Nigeria are being martyred by Muslims. Muslims and Christians compete with each other using very difficult rules and strategies.

One other misleading factor should be noted. Some research claiming the decline of Christianity lumps all churches together in the data. But when liberal and conservative churches are sorted, it is clear that liberal churches (those that compromise biblical truth to be relevant) are in decline while evangelical churches overall are not. This, too, is old news, going back to Dean Kelly’s book 1972, Why Conservative Churches are Growing. But, the trend Kelly noted continues. Stanton speaks of the steep and rapid decline of an evangelical church that shifted its doctrine to accommodate LGBTQ morality.

I commend Stanton for bringing this research to a wider audience. His chapter on how to read social science research regarding religion is quite helpful, since so many are bamboozled by misleading research. Stanton writes: “I am a huge fan and advocate of teaching young people and adults apologetics and worldview. . . . But some of those offering help with apologetics—the very pursuit and explanation of truth—are ironically some of the biggest offenders when it come to the false Chicken Little narratives” (p. 165). As an apologist, I was challenged when I read this. After reading this book, I conclude that I have sometimes erred in this way, but I am happy to accept the good news that I was sometimes too pessimistic.

Stanton’s chapter, “The Holy Spirit is not Asleep At The Wheel,” offers an encouraging theology of the Holy Spirit’s power to advance the gospel no matter what the obstacles or the odds against it. Stanton reminds us that, as Jesus said, “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church” (Matthew 16:18). Who knows what Christians might do and how the church would grow if Christ’s followers fully submitted themselves to be filled with the Spirit of Truth? However, the book suffers from a few weaknesses, which, if addressed rightly, can help the church grow even stronger.

First, the author tends to put the cookies on a low shelf intellectually. The main points are repeated too often, and the sense is that the reader has to be cajoled into thinking hard about the matters at hand. I am all for popularizing important information, but some readers may feel a little insulted and wish that the author got to the point more quickly.

Second, despite the good news that much of the bad news is wrong, there is much bad news about the influence of Christianity in American culture that the author doesn’t take up in any detail. Church participation is one thing, but orthodox beliefs and intelligent social engagement are another. Stanton does note that “a very slight majority of evangelicals today say they believe many religions can lead to eternal life” (p. 47. Oddly, he does not give the exact percentage, but does rightly say that “is very troubling…” (p. 47). Indeed it is, since Jesus is the only way to be reconciled to God and because the Gospel must be preached to the nations (Matthew 11:27, 28:18-20; John 14:6; Acts 1:8, 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5).

Many evangelical churches are weak in doctrinal preaching and apologetics. Even if many high school students come back to the church after college, it is a tragedy that many of them abandon the church during the time when they are most in need of the intellectual resources that only a robust Christian worldview can give them.

Third, Stanton does not address the rise of the “new atheism” of the past fifteen years or so. Led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett (the group’s only real philosopher) and the late Christopher Hitchens, the new atheists have galvanized many unbelievers in the West to be more militant in their unbelief and to attack Christianity (and all religion) as not only false, but dangerous to society. For example, biologist and atheist scion, Dawkins likened parents teaching their children religion to child abuse. The rhetoric is often vitriolic. Some bookstores now have a separate section for “Atheism,” which usually come after the Philosophy section.

The wind may be out of the sails of the New Atheism, but it has motivated atheists to attack religion more aggressively. I am not sure that this movement increased the percentage of atheists or merely recruited more them for combat. Perhaps it is both. But, given the publication books such as Religion for Atheists by Alain De Botton and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris and in light of the rise of atheist clubs on college campuses, Christians should take this seriously as a challenge to a rational Christian faith. I recently talked to a young man for two hours who had lost his faith to the arguments of the new atheists. I endeavored earnestly to show him that none of these arguments held water. The arguments of the new atheists are neither new nor strong, but they are influential.[4]

Of course, Stanton’s book is not a work of apologetics, so we should not expect him to respond to specific attacks on Christianity. Still, it seems that he has discounted some rather significant recent anti-Christian trends that affect people’s willingness to come to Christ.

Despite its weaknesses, The Myth of the Dying Church is a tonic to the popular defeatism and pessimism that dogs too much of evangelicalism in the United States. Of course, even if everything is getting worse, we soldier on in the glad service of the gospel, come what may because “The gates of hell will not prevail against the church” (Matthew 16:18).

[1] See L. Lilly Rothman, “Is God Dead?” At 50” Time, 2016. https://time.com/isgoddead.

[2] For a careful look at secularization theory, see Harold Netland, “Secularization, Globalization, and Religion,” Christianity and Religious Diversity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015).

[3] Buddhism is the third most significant missionary religion. See Netland, “Buddhism in the Modern World” in Christianity and Religious Diversity.

[4] See Douglas Groothuis, “Understanding the New Atheism, Part I: The Straw God” at bethinking https://www.bethinking.org/atheism/understanding-the-new-atheism and Douglas Groothuis “Understanding the New Atheism, Part II : Attacking the New Testament” at bethinking: https://www.bethinking.org/atheism/understanding-the-new-atheism/2-part-2-attacks-on-the-new-testament. For an in-depth defense of the existence of God, see Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).