Pew Research released new data on the religious landscape in America and religion reporters and commenters rushed to release their takes.
Unfortunately, many of those were essentially hot takes, in that they made grand pronouncements using only a singular piece of data without allowing for any sense of nuance.
Most gravitated toward Pew’s findings that the overall share of Christians in America declined almost 8%—from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014.
This led to predictable headlines about “Christianity in sharp decline” or “America increasingly irreligious.” Those things are technically true.
Overall, Christianity is in decline and an 8% decline in seven years is fairly sharp. And the percentage of unaffiliated grew from 16.1% to 22.8%.
But what those stats fail to capture by themselves is the more complicated (and perhaps encouraging) picture underneath, Ed Stetzer wrote about at Christianity Today.
Evangelicals actually grew in terms of raw numbers and saw a modest increase in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as such. Using denominational identifiers, evangelicals declined less than a percent in seven years, but were the only major Christian group to see more join the ranks than leave.
So, as you should be able to tell, the hot takes fail to get the full and more accurate picture. But, they get attention and page views, which often drives news coverage in a social media world. The response to the data demonstrates the ascension of “clickbait Christianity.”
Here’s what Stetzer said in his piece about the tendency and temptation to use the more negative numbers.
You might say that I have a vested interested in evangelicalism’s success. However, as an author, the opposite is true. If I announced the death of evangelicalism and Christian faith, I’d sell a lot more books, I assure you.
He has frequently framed this discussion as the collapse of cultural Christianity. The nominals are no longer claiming a faith that matters little to their everyday lives.
If they don’t care enough to go to church on Sunday, they stopped caring enough to check Christian on a survey.
Because the decline in “Christians” is overwhelmingly the result of these nominal believers dropping the name and embracing their practical lack of religion, what this really should lead to is a collapse of clickbait style religion reporting.
But nuance takes work and doesn’t fit well in a tweet. “Well, it’s kinda complicated” doesn’t naturally elicit Facebook shares or garner viral style page views. Yet that doesn’t make it any less true.
You will see scores of headlines and social media updates lamenting (or celebrating) the inevitable eradication of Christianity in America.
Those supporting a more secular society will trumpet selective numbers as if they are giving the whole picture. Christians who want to garner clicks or drum up book sales will assure you the sky is falling.
But remember what the actual numbers say—cultural Christianity is losing sway over the nominals and convictional Christianity is, at worst, remaining steady.
And more than anything else, keep in mind one of the true influencers in this discussion is clickbait Christianity.