WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with Glenn Stanton. He’s the director of global family formation studies at Focus On The Family and the author of a new book, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and Around the World.
We see the headlines every day. The church is dying. Church attendance is at an all-time low. Millennials are no longer affiliated with the church. Kids raised in evangelical homes abandon the church when they reach college.
According to Glenn Stanton, my guest today, the problem with most of these headlines is—well, they’re just not true, or at least they’re not nearly the whole truth.
Glenn Stanton loves numbers, and he says no one number tells the whole story of the church. He says nuance and context both matter—a lot. And if you look deeply at the statistics about religion you discover a church that is not in decline, but one that is growing rapidly in some areas, and in rapid decline in others. Overall, though, he sees much to encourage him, and says we shouldn’t believe the doomsday predictions about the church.
Glenn Stanton has been with Focus on the Family for more than 25 years and is the author of a number of books on the family and culture, including Loving my LGBT Neighbor and The Ring Makes All The Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Co-Habitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage.
I had this conversation with Glenn Stanton about his latest book at the studios of The Colson Center, which shares a building with Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Well, Glenn, welcome back to the program. And you know, I’ve been following your work over the last few months, kind of in anticipation of this book coming out, The Myth of the Dying Church, because for one thing is really sort of counter, it’s a counter narrative to what a lot of people are saying out there. What the Barna group and what many others are saying about the church dying with Gallup polls are saying the church is dying. And you’re saying, hey, wait a minute time out. Let’s look at the day, the little bit more closely and you’re seeing something very different. What do you seeing?
GLENN STANTON, GUEST: Yeah, well it is a myth busting sort of book. And you know, generally what you’ve been told—and it’s surprising how confidently you’ll hear pastors say, as we all know, the church is dying or young people are leaving the church in droves. And there is some data to point to that, but it is just not simply true. If you will, and it’s not that these people are telling untruths, but if you’re only telling part of the story, you know, to your parents, where were you last night, but there’s the rest of the story that puts everything in context—what I’m telling is the rest of the story there.
SMITH: Well, let’s drill into that a little bit because what’s true and what’s not true or what is the rest of the story? Because I think you can look at a lot of data and see that the rise of the nones, for example.
SMITH: That people are saying that they have no religious affiliation. That there is no doubt that that number’s gone up.
SMITH: And you look at, say for example, the mainline churches, there’s been a collapse. I mean, nothing short of a complete collapse in churches like the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church. But you’re saying that you’re nodding yes. You’re saying yes, that’s all true. But that’s not nearly the entire story.
STANTON: It’s not the entire story. Exactly. So, first of all, I mean, is the church shrinking? I, you know, and we as Christians aren’t used to talking like this. We’re definitive. But is the church shrinking? Yes and no. You know? Well, how can it be both? Well, it depends on what part of the church you’re talking about. The mainline denominations have been absolutely hemorrhaging members since like the 1960s, all up to the current day.
I mean, it is phenomenal. People are leaving those churches in droves as if the pastors are sending everybody a please get out of here invitation. And you know what? They’re doing that by compromising on the faith, denying the deity of Christ, the reality of the resurrection. I mean, every time these mainline churches make a more liberalizing move, people leave those churches. Now what about the evangelical churches? What about the nondenominational churches? Those churches have been holding tremendously steady since the 60s, 70s. And in fact, they’ve even grown just a little bit. There’s a little bit of Harvard research that came out just recently and it says that evangelicals are not in decline. That’s a quote. They say that evangelicals have grown from 18 percent of the population in 1972 to about 28 percent of the population just recently. So there has been growth in that way.
So here’s the story: The bottom line is churches that are compromising on the truth, declining. And declining in big numbers, by the millions. Churches that are holding steady to the gospel, calling people to real discipleship, believing, taking the Bible at its word and Christ at His word, those churches are thriving. And people are looking for what I call whole milk Christianity. They’re not looking for skim milk Christianity, and people are moving in the direction of those churches.
SMITH: So what you’ve just said explains why we could see new stories that say the rise of the nones is growing. Because they are folks that were probably very loosely affiliated with the church in the first place, nominally Christian, perhaps going to doctrinally liberal or progressive churches and they just disassociated. And so now they were nominally Episcopalian and now they’re nominally nothing.
SMITH: But the people that have true convictions, they might move around a little bit from church to church, but they are generally staying churched and staying involved. Is that what you’re saying?
STANTON: Yes. No, that’s exactly right. And you hit it very well, Warren, in that the nones and you know, and we hear all about the nones, but infamously, that group is very confusing to understand and very few people really do understand it, but the best sociologists of religion say that yes, the nones as a group are growing, but they are not a new group of unbelievers. Let me say that again. The nones are growing as a group—those who say they are associated with no faith—but they’re not a new group of unbelievers. How can that be? Well, they’re simply people who used to be, you know, yep, we’re Methodists, always been Methodist, you know. When their pastor has not even maybe seen them at Christmas and Easter, but now in our culture they’re just more comfortable saying, you know what, I’m really nothing.
It’s interesting that Pew tells us that for those people that in adulthood have left their faith, only 12% of those people said they had any kind of substantive faith to talk about in their childhood. So what that means is 88% of people who say they don’t have any faith today are simply saying they never held onto what they never had in the first place. So yes, nones are growing, but they’re not a new group. They’re just identifying differently and if you will, more honestly.
SMITH: But I think that that does, though reflect a shift in the culture. In other words, if I believe nothing 30 or 40 years ago, I might say I was a Methodist just because it was socially acceptable to be a Methodist. People thought differently of me if they thought I was a church goer versus a non church goer.
Now it’s socially acceptable not to go to church.
SMITH: So even though I take your point, there really has been a little bit of a shift in the cultural conversation about, if you will, the Christian brand that it doesn’t have kind of the same cultural coin that it did 40 or 50 years ago.
STANTON: One of my buddies at work here at Focus On The Family, we’ll debate that. Is that good or bad? And Ed Stetzer I think says it so wonderfully is it’s not that the nones are a new group, but it’s that real Christianity is being clarified. You know, it’s either pick a side, call yourself a Christian and be a Christian or give up the pretense. And so no, you’re right. I mean, to lose a culture where it’s socially acceptable to say you’re Christian, that’s a loss. That’s unfortunate.
But the committed Christians are clarifying themselves and becoming more distinct and being challenged to be more distinct in this culture. I mean, basically it’s the wheat from the chaff of what we’re seeing today.
SMITH: Well explain this to me then, Glenn, because we’ve got kind of two factions, I would say, in culture that are perpetuating this myth.
SMITH: One would be folks, evangelicals, even news organizations like the Barna Research Group that have been putting out sort of this Chicken Little kind of message.
STANTON: That’s exactly what I call it in the book.
SMITH: Yeah. And then the others are the secular media. They are also perpetuating this message as well. But probably for different reasons?
STANTON: Yes, yes, very much. And that is a very good question, Warren. And it’s very critical.
Let’s deal with the Christians first. In some sense—and for some reason—we Christians, the people of Good News, love bad news. It somehow makes us feel good. Like, oh my goodness, you know, the sky is falling, things are bad. We’ve got to buckle up. You know, people in the pews get ready cause hard days are coming, you know. We like that kind of stuff. And in some sense we feel like if we communicate good news, no, the church really is doing pretty well attendance wise, well, you know, that’s not being really connected to the world.
But here’s the other thing that’s very important and I think apologetics and educating for apologetics is essential to the church. But a lot of the people giving this line of the church is dying, young people are leaving the church are the people that do apologetics and they do it in their marketing, okay?
SMITH: They’re selling stuff.
STANTON: Well, yes.
SMITH: I mean it helps their sales.
STANTON: It’s silly commercials—and I don’t mean these people are silly—but the silly commercials that my kids get such a kick out of is like, do you have a hard time shredding cabbage in your kitchen? And the lady’s shredding cabbage and she’s getting her knuckles and like, well then try our product and the happy music comes on. It’s if you have a thing that solves a problem, you’ve got to create the problem. And that’s what we’re doing with, unfortunately, apologetics marketing is saying, yes, hell in a handbasket things are doing bad, you need me to help you gird up your kids. Well, no, we could just simply market and say, you know what? Kids are doing pretty well, but they can be stronger. They can be tougher, they can be more robust. Here’s my book.
SMITH: So what about the other side of the coin? The sort of the secularists, the mainstream media. They are also perpetuating that message. I would assume maybe because they want to communicate the narrative that Christianity has less influence in the culture.
STANTON: Oh, absolutely. I mean that’s exactly it is the sooner those Christians, you know, air quotes, the sooner those Christians leave, the better off the world will be. And that’s why we see when these polling organizations come out with the stories of the church declining, so many of these journalists do journalism by press release. They just operate. I mean, one example was a Pew report came out and it says, “Religion declining in importance across America.” Okay? That was the headline of their report, their press release. The subtitle said, “But conservative Christianity or evangelical Christianity holding strong.” Okay? That showed up in no major press story. It was right there for them to read and then you read into the press release itself and the press release tells a very different story than the New York Times, The Washington Post, the LA Times, all these different other publications. It’s a different story than what they’re telling and so we need to know, I mean, whenever they receive information that’s bad about the church or that reflects poorly, especially among conservative or faithful evangelical Christians, that’ll be on the front page easily and they’ll print anything like that.
SMITH: Glenn, up until now our conversation has been confined mostly to the American church and yet you talk some in your book about what’s going on in the church globally. Can you say something about that?
STANTON: Yeah, I mean that was the interesting part of the research and let me just say this first. As I was doing the research for this book, I had done a good bit prior and it’s why I wanted to write the book. And I knew there was good research showing that the church was not shrinking either domestically or globally. I was actually going to do just one chapter presenting the research. I ended up doing like five chapters because of all the research that was actually out there. And things for conservative churches, evangelical churches are holding pretty steady in the United States and in some ways even growing. But globally, Christianity is just, and the scholars who study this stuff and they’re not used to really using hyperbole, but they use words like exploding, booming, I mean hundred-fold increases in church attendance and the number of churches in Africa andwhat we’re calling the global south. That is, South America, Africa itself.
But they also describe some of Asia as the global south, even though it’s north of the Equator because it’s that developing world. And what they’re saying is Christianity is exploding and good Christianity—faithful, biblical, you know, kind of hell, fire, pound the pulpit kind of Christianity—is just blossoming around the world. And really, I mean, we think about Europe is being more secularized. It’s Europe, Eastern Europe, I’m sorry, western Europe and up in Scandinavia. And really the secularization is confined to those areas. In Russia, in China—in China the church is just absolutely exploding and the more the government presses down and tries to repress it, the more it grows.
SMITH: Well, Glenn, you’re not the first person to say this. I mean we’ve had folks like Rodney Stark for example. We’ve had folks like Phil Jenkins who has written several books on this topic.
STANTON: And Phil is who I draw from most.
SMITH: Yeah, in your book. So I guess my question is lot of really smart people are saying—well you just said and now you have another person who’s saying this again—why does this myth persist that Christianity is in decline here and around the world?
STANTON: You know, I mean, that’s the question. That is the question. And I think in one sense it’s one we for some reason again I’ll say it is the people of good news, like bad news for some reason. The other is we hear other people saying it and just because it’s repeated time and time and time again, it becomes truth. And it is backed up. It’s backed up with quote unquote stats, you know, like, well gosh, this organization or USA Today reported this. I mean, it must be true. But very few of these people are really digging into the depths of the data itself. Now you may have a finding from one institution, from Barna, from Fuller, from, you know, but what you’ve gotta do, and I’m very big on this in the book, is look at the large body of data.
You know, it’s similar to—ask anybody—is wine good for your heart or eggs good for you or not good for you? I mean, we hear a different story nearly every six months. Well, it’s not that the last research you hear creates the new normal. You’ve got to look at the research across the board. What do research on the health of eggs say from 1970 up to now? That’s what we’ve got to do is look at the real scholars, like you said. Christian Smith, Phil Jenkin, Rodney Stark and then lesser known people who are just quietly publishing on these things and publishing from big universities telling us—and Pew even does it wonderfully as well—is in terms of conservative Christianity, Biblical, faithful Christianity, it’s actually doing quite well.
Another thing that I talk about is, you know, we live in the age of the mega church and I have a little fun with it is like if you’re not sure what mega is, you know, there’s the big gulp and then there’s the mega gulp. You know, I mean, it’s like would you rather have a big stack of free 20s or a mega stack of big 20s. Every good size town has a mega church. Mega churches do not happen in an atmosphere of a declining church. They just simply don’t.
SMITH: You know, Glenn, you talked a little bit ago about sort of good Christianity versus the other kinds of Christianity and we see both examples both here in the United States, but also around the world. I have heard that there is exploding growth in the church and in the so-called global south as you mentioned. But I’ve also heard that a lot of it was prosperity Gospel. That it was a not what you would call biblically Orthodox Christianity. I’ve been to Africa, I’ve been to South America, I’ve been to India. I’ve seen some of that myself and know it to be true. But I’ve also seen really godly faithful people in all of those places as well. Do you have any sense based on your research, kind of what the percentage of one versus the other is in these developing countries?
STANTON: Yeah, that’s a great, great question. And I try to be clear in the book that I am not talking about the growth of Christianity or vibrant Christianity in the United States or in the world being buckled down, strong, straight, good theology, you know. Look around us. I mean, theological understanding seems to be declining. We see marketing more in the church than we ever have. I mean those things are problematic. But in terms of people going away from the church, that’s the question that I wanted to wanted to approach.
So you do, and a lot of these countries you have hardcore, crazy prosperity Gospel stuff and then you have prosperity Gospel who, you know, is not nutso. It’s not a church that I would go to, but you know, they’re kind of in the realm of Orthodoxy. But then you also—like, you think about the Anglican Church and the Anglican bishops in Africa. The center of Anglicanism in the last 20 years has shifted from England down to Africa, the continent of Africa and in particular places, in particularly that is that these conservative African bishops and you look at the Anglican churches today in the United States that are growing nearly to a church they are all under the authority and the leadership of the covering of these African bishops. So Anglicanism growing in the United States today is of that very conservative flavor.
In fact, more theological seminaries have been built in Africa in the last 10 to 15 years than all the rest of the world combined. I mean, radical things are happening there and Anglicanism Episcopalianism is a microcosm of that is that the liberal party is shrinking. The conservative part is growing and becoming far more dominant.
SMITH: Glenn, I’d like to pivot in our conversation just a little bit because you’ve done a great job of hitting the data and sort of drilling underneath the headlines to help us see that the headlines are often either false or only part of the story. I think the thing that I’d like to ask you about now though is more about the theology. It is always interesting to me that those of us who are Christians will say that the church is going to, you know, hell in a handbasket, and we forget that the Bible itself says that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church.
It’s almost as if we have to ignore what the Bible teaches us about the church in order to believe some of these false headlines.
STANTON: You know what, that hit me in about the middle of the book, and I realized writing it that—I realized I needed a chapter on the Holy Spirit and pneumatology, you know the study, the theology of the Holy Spirit. If the church is declining, and if we may not have a church in 10 20 years, which many people in the Christian community have been saying—and I say this tongue in cheek—then we’ve got to find out who is responsible for that and slap them on the hand. Who is that? It’s the Holy Spirit, you know? And of course the Holy Spirit is not on vacation. He’s not on his lunch break. He, the church, the spirit of God will continue to move through the world through the ages, through the millennia. And he’s doing that today. The Holy Spirit is not asleep at the wheel. And I mean, even as I was studying the scriptures, Jesus says, Peter, you know, upon you the rock, I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. In Acts 2, it says, and the Lord was continuing to add to the church, those who were being saved. Continuing, okay? You look at Revelation and it says, who was worshiping God at the ends of time? Throngs of people. It wasn’t this little like measly little remnant, you know, that came to worship in a minivan. No, God, the Kingdom of God, the Church of God moves on like a freight train through history. Now, not the same everywhere at every time. You know, we see what we see in Europe and other places and you know, the upper northeast for here in the United States. But that doesn’t mean that the Church of Christ is not continuing to press on and accomplish what it does. You know, it says in the Old Testament, God says, my word will not return void. Well, if the church is shrinking, if people are losing interest in the Gospel, if they’re not just hearing it, well, God’s word would be returning void, and the scripture tells us that that cannot be the case. So it’s just poor theology. It’s poor sociology, but it’s also poor theology to say, gosh, we may not even have a church in 20 years.
SMITH: Well, I don’t even know how long you’ve been at Focus On The Family. 10 years. 15 years?
STANTON: Oh my goodness.
SMITH: 20 years?
STANTON: I came here in the beginning of July. Day right after 4th of July vacation 1993.
SMITH: Holy cow. 25 years.
STANTON: It’s crazy, right?
SMITH: So you’ve done a lot of those…
STANTON: I was three when I started working here.
SMITH: You were a young man and you’re still a young man in many ways, but you’ve been here a long time. You’ve done a lot of work. Though I think the most, maybe most of our listeners will recognize you for another book that you wrote called Loving My LGBT Neighbor in part because—at least regular listeners to this program—will remember that you and I had a conversation about that book a few years ago. In fact, I think it was when we were both speakers at the World Congress of Families in Salt Lake City. And of course now we’re having this conversation here at Focus On The Family in Colorado Springs. But here’s the real spirit of that question. I wanted to provide that context to ask this.
SMITH: Okay, so you’ve got your current book on the church, on the, the myth of the dying church and then you had that book on loving my LGBT neighbor. What’s the common thread there? What’s the arc of your research and your studies?
STANTON: Well, see, and yeah that’s you as a good interviewer because in a sense, this is a very different kind of book. All my books and the work that I do here at Focus On The Family since 1993 has been sociology of the family, looking at family, marriage, divorce, same sex, families, sexuality, all those kinds of things. Every one of my books has been about this. This is the first book where it’s not about the family per se. Even though I’ve got a chapter in here about how parents can nearly guarantee that their kids will take a strong faith into their adulthood lives.
But this is a sociology of religion. And where this book came from was just me paying attention to the cultural discussion. And even at Focus, you know, I do research here and so it’s on the family, but some people would say, well the research on the dying church, what do you find there?
And so having done that research for Dr. Dobson way back when and doing it now, having the great honor of doing that for Jim Daly and the other leaders, I had done a good bit of research here and there on this question. And I continued to see there was good research and what happened was I wrote an article for a pretty well known blog and it was on this issue and it presented some Harvard research and I had a publisher just contact me and say, do you think there’s a book in this? And I said, oh absolutely, there is a book in this. So they said, put us a proposal together, we’d like to publish it. And so it went out from there. So it falls under the vein of our Christian faith, our Christian faith in the culture, how’s it doing? I’m trying to be a bit of a mythbuster for good and bad on family research.
So the common thread would be the mythbusting thing. That what we assume is true is not necessarily true. And there a big, big phrase for me and my friends know this is it’s found in the nuances. Nuance matters. And so that’s what this book is about. That’s what my research on family has been about is these nuances matter. And to understand why that is and how that’s the case. So yeah, you recognize well that this is my first non-sociology of the family book.
SMITH: Well, and yet you do, as you mentioned, have a chapter on the family and on raising our kids. And so let’s kind of maybe try to land this airplane then around that question. We’re looking at the church and we’re seeing no, in fact, it is not in decline. That theologically, conservative, Bible-believing churches are, at worst, holding their own right and possibly growing. It’s the theological liberal churches, the ones that have denied the core doctrines of the faith that are tanking. So how now should we live?
If I’m a parent raising my kids or if I’m, you know, a person responsible for my own walk with Christ, wanting to nurture that faith, how would I take this research and, you know, some of the ideas that you’ve shared and turn that into how I should live on a daily basis?
STANTON: Well, it’s interesting because, yeah, this is general research sociological, but I do have this chapter in there. It’s the last chapter, chapter eight, and the title of it is “Passing Faith Onto Our Kids is Neither Rocket Science or a Crapshoot. We can. And the best research tells us this. And it’s not from any Christian organization per se, but psychologists and sociologists who study these things out in the secular world, who happened to be believers themselves, but they’re working from academic institutions. They’re saying that it is nearly guaranteed that if parents do a couple of basic things, that their kids are likely to carry their faith into adulthood.
And basically those things are live your faith out honestly before your kids. Pray, read your bibles, and not, “Okay kids,i t’s now time to sit down. Eight o’clock let’s –” but make it an integrated part of your life. And help kids develop those sorts of habits. Bible reading, going to church regularly, praying. That again only 12% of people who left the faith in adulthood said they had any kind of of real measurable faith in childhood. 88% of kids who say that they grew up in a—not even a perfect house—but, you know what, my parents were Christians. We went to church, we read the scriptures, we wrestled with these kinds of things.Those young people are nearly guaranteed to hang on to their faith.
And this is important that we think as well—and there’s the spiritual dimension to that. But some of these sociologists will tell us that this is really true of any kind of family. And I don’t mean to diminish the spiritual angle, but if you grow up in a cowboy family, if you grow up in a sports family, if you grow up in a sailing family, if you grow up in an academic family, it’s very likely that those kids are going to grow up doing the same sorts of things. It’s the sociological idea of what people were in the past is what they tend to be for good or for bad in the future. And so that’s very important for parents to know. And the best research shows us that they’re just a basic, and I go into great detail in these things in the book, but there are some basic things that good Christian parents can do and do them very imperfectly and still have your kids, go into adulthood with a vibrant faith. It may be a different kind of faith than you do in terms of it’s a Christian faith, but they live it out differently. You live it out different than your own parents did. But they’re telling us that it is very likely that your kids will adopt your faith and bring it into adulthood.
SMITH: Well, Glenn, thank you so much for this book. I found it to be badly needed. Because I’ve had Brad Wright on the program before and Mark Regnerus on the program. These are some of the sociologists that you were talking about and that you’ve been studying. And for you to kinda, you know, put all that great research there in one place on the shelf for me and for the church is a real service. So I really appreciate you doing that. And thanks so much. Good to see you, too, by the way.
STANTON: Thank you, Warren.