Christianity Began Its Decline When It Stopped Burning People at the Stake


There is a lot of concern and hand wringing these days over the graying of Christian congregations and decline in church affiliation among adults in the United States. A recent Pew longitudinal study[1] has shown a sharp decline in religious affiliation between 2007 and 2014. During this interval, the percent of unaffiliated adults[2] grew from 16% of the population to just short of 23%. Mark Chaves has written that “Conventional religious identity in the United States has been declining since 1972. At first slowly, and then with increasing momentum since 2002.”[3] Indeed an even more recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute[4] (PRRI) has shown that in 1972 unaffiliated adults amounted to 5% of the adult U.S. population, 14% in 2000 and 25 % in 2016. Further, for those between the ages of 18-29, 39% identified as unaffiliated. Trends further indicate that over the years the number of unaffiliated remain stable as people age. For example, the percent of unaffiliated in the 18-29 age group in 1986 was 10%, ten years later in 1996, 12% of the 30-49 age group was unaffiliated, ten years later than that in 2006, 13% of the 50-64 age group were unaffiliated and still ten years later in 2016, 13 % of the 65+ age group were unaffiliated. It has often been assumed that as younger people age and start families, they return to the church. But this data seems to refute that scenario and suggest that the percent of unaffiliated in an age cohort remains stable as they age. Thus, those young people in 2016 (of which 39% are unaffiliated) are likely to “remain so throughout their life time. The PRRI study has further shown that one of the major contributing factors for leaving the church is that the unaffiliated simply stopped believing in the religion’s teaching. The unaffiliated also tended to agree that “religion causes more problems in society than it solves” and disagree that “it is important for children to be brought up in a religion, so they can learn good values.” Wow! That is some powerful information. So, what’s going on?


In my book Being Christian in the Twenty-First Century, I make the case, drawing from the remarks of many over decades, that the Christianity needs to revise its messaging to be meaningful for today’s humanity. The modern mind is simply unwilling to accept virgin births, feeding miracles and bodily resurrections as literal events. I do believe however, that it is open to understanding such precepts metaphorically and/or within the ancient literary framework in which they were written and intended to be understood. Yet these teachings are infrequently approached or expounded upon in the contemporary pulpit from metaphorical or ancient literary framework perspectives. Rather, clergy ambiguously service the broad spectrum of belief in their congregations with pulpit speak that rarely challenges their congregants to think more deeply. Conversely, congregants accept ambiguous claims and hyperventilated platitudes from the pulpit failing to bring their intellectual curiosity to the worship service. In this careful dance, clergy teaching roles take a back seat to keeping the peace within their flock and no one’s toes get stepped on. Too many congregants either swallow the church talk, ignore parts they don’t like or walk. More than ever before people are choosing to walk. The younger are walking sooner and at a brisker pace. If sermons were more straight forward and honest, old timers who might become distraught and leave the church just might be replaced by younger folks craving legitimate spiritual enrichment. In such a manner the church could be revitalized


The title of this essay, “Christianity Began Its Decline When It Stopped Burning People at the Stake,” is clearly meant as an attention grabber. But, only to a degree. While religious authorities no longer have people burned at the stake and people no longer fear such an outcome for questioning religious teaching, the church still holds the trump card in many circles by promulgating a threat of eternal damnation for false or nonbelief and eternal reward for right belief. It is far past time to stop using this calculative manipulation about an unknowable afterlife and refocus on pursuing a pathway to full humanity and unity in the here and now. It is time to stop making Jesus God’s whipping boy for saving all of us poor unclean creatures. Rather than a focus on salvation through Jesus’ bloody sacrifice, the church must refocus on empowering its people to live the life that Jesus modeled as the path to becoming fully human – fully divine. As such, original sin must give way to original blessing as Matthew Fox and others have expressed. The church needs to stop saying after a Scripture reading, “the word of God for the people of God.” Scripture is not the word of God. It is the word of humans writing over centuries of how they have experienced God in their culture and frame of understanding. Sometimes they got it right, many times they did not. It is time to stop excluding certain people from full inclusion in the leadership and fellowship. And, it is time to let the teaching and deeds of Jesus be our guide, replacing the creeds, doctrines and other illogical messaging that is untenable for so many. But, these measures would be just a start. Perhaps a good place to continue this reform movement would be to consult with the unaffiliated who have already left the fold and ask them what primarily sticks in their craw. It is not that they have a corner on truth or that their advice should always be followed, but they can provide a pointer to the church establishment’s blind spots that prevent them from needed reform. But, immediately, as a start, let’s stop making belief in untenable doctrines and Christological claims the litmus test for Christianity. Let us return to the ancient Jesus’s sermon on the mount and related teachings as our guide and work to empower people to follow them. As an alternative, we could bring back the fiery stake to retain or grow membership, but that is probably not feasible in the twenty-first century!!!


[1] Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”

[2] Unaffiliated adults refer to those who self-identify as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular.

[3] Mark Chavez, American Religion: Contemporary Trends (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 2011)

[4] Public Religion Research Institute, September 2016, Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion – and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back