NASHVILLE (BP) — The latest data release from the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study is significant but not surprising. For students of Scripture and church history, it confirms with empirical data what God’s people have known to be true for millennia: the Lord’s modus operandi is to preserve a faithful remnant amid the sinful world. It was true in the times of Noah, Elijah and the Apostle Paul, and telephone surveys of 35,071 American adults confirm it’s still true today.
The title and subhead on a Nov. 3 release from the Pew Research Center aptly summarize all 265 pages of data: “U.S. public becoming less religious. Modest drop in overall rates of belief and practice, but religiously affiliated Americans are as observant as ever.”
Among those surveyed, 23 percent described themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” up 7 percentage points from a similar survey in 2007. Among the religiously unaffiliated — deemed the “nones” to describe their response to the question of religious affiliation — fewer than two-thirds (61 percent) said they believed in God. That represented a 9-percentage-point drop since 2007.
The net result is an adult population that “has become slightly less religious,” according to Pew. That reality is reflected by overall declines in daily prayer, attendance at religious services and belief in God.
A significant cause of the decline in religiosity is that the Millennial generation is “far less religious than their elders” and has begun to replace the shrinking Silent and Baby Boomer generations in the U.S. population.
At the same time, Pew found, “religiously affiliated people appear to have grown more religiously observant in recent years.” Scripture reading, sharing their faith with others and participation in prayer and Scripture study groups are all up modestly among the religiously affiliated.
Of course, the “religiously affiliated” are not all Christians. About 69 percent of them identify with groups and denominations traditionally identified as holding orthodox Christian beliefs, with the remainder belonging to non-Christian religions and Christian offshoot groups with beliefs diverging from historic Christianity. And not all who self-identify as Christians are committed. Still, the emerging picture is a Christian population steady in its devotion and spiritual disciplines among a culture drifting from faith in God.
The findings, while significant for the scope of Pew’s research, are not novel. This is how God has allowed humanity to operate since the Fall of Genesis 3. He permits the sinful world to decline in its devotion to Him while preserving a faithful remnant.
God preserved Noah’s family amid a world flooded with sin. He chose Abraham’s clan amid a Canaanite landscape that included Sodom and Gomorrah. He preserved Israel amid the violent and perverse peoples surrounding the Promised Land, Ruth and Boaz amid a Jewish population that “did what was right in their own eyes” and the prophets Elijah and Elisha amid a kingdom led to idolatry by wicked monarchs.
Following the Babylonian exile, the faithful remnant was constituted by those who anticipated the Messiah amid a culture the prophet Malachi said “profaned the covenant of [its] fathers” (Malachi 2:10). This remnant later included a virgin named Mary who believed God when He said she would conceive a son by the Holy Spirit.
In New Testament times and beyond, the church was a persecuted remnant amid pagan Roman culture. By the fourth century, Christianity had become an officially recognized religion, but faithfulness declined, leading a committed remnant to found the monastic movement, which for all its flaws was devoted to Christ in contrast to the cultural Christianity surrounding it.
More than a thousand years later, the Protestant Reformation represented the effort of a committed remnant to preserve the doctrine of justification by faith alone amid European moral and religious decline. Later still, the Puritans of England and New England saw themselves as God’s faithful remnant, as did the missions movement sparked by William Carey in the 19th century, the student volunteer movement of the 20th century and the early 21st century’s wave of missions-driven evangelical youth.
At each of these junctures, God’s people had the opportunity to wring their hands at the decline around them. Yet God has consistently encouraged them as He encouraged Elijah on Mount Horeb: You’re not alone. Everyone has not “bowed to Baal.” Keep following Me (1 Kings 19:18).
That’s why Pew’s findings should neither surprise Christians nor cause us to panic. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to stand firm, knowing that God has long accomplished His purposes through a remnant. And Jesus promised that neither the gates of Hell nor the rise of the “nones” would prevail against His church.