The Pew Report on America’s changing religious landscape hit the blogosphere this week with a bang. It seemed as if all the major Christian media outlets and bloggers had to weigh in on the new data that was revealed. For those that did not see the report, the big news was that the number of people who call themselves religiously “unaffiliated” has risen significantly in the last seven years. In addition, the number of people that consider themselves a Christian of some type dropped by 7.8% in the same time frame. The data showed that the Catholic Church and Mainline Denominations suffered the largest declines, while Evangelicals remained flat over that period.
Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of LifeWay Research, did some excellent reporting on all of this and made some really interesting points in his blog posts. In his post entitled, Nominals to Nones: 3 Key Takeaways From Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey, he made the following statement:
“The cultural cost of calling yourself “Christian” is starting to outweigh the cultural benefit, so those who do not identify as a “Christian” according to their convictions are starting to identify as “nones” because it’s more culturally savvy. Because of this, the statistics show (on the surface) that Christianity in America is experiencing a sharp decline. However, that’s the path of those who don’t read beyond the surface. If there remains a relatively stable church-engaged, convictional minority, and there is a big movement on self-identification, that means that the middle is going away. Christianity is losing, and will continue to lose, its home field advantage; no one can (or should) deny this. However, the numerical decline of self-identified American Christianity is more of a purifying bloodletting than it is an arrow to the heart of the church.”
So what does all of this mean for those of us that work in the world of Christian publishing and book retailing? It seems to me that the “purifying” of Christianity in America is a good thing for all of us. For too long, secular publishers have seen Christian publishing as easy money for books that have no significant spiritual value, are theologically suspect and are often written for the very nominal Christian that are now disavowing Christianity in larger and larger numbers. Maybe they will reconsider how many Christian vampire books really need to be on the market and whether or not sticking a Christian celebrity on the cover and selling it in Wal-Mart is really an effective strategy going forward.
Christian retail stores have been aware of this trend for a long time now and many stores have closed in part because they depended on the foot traffic from people who saw Christianity as part of the “inspirational” lifestyle they were creating for themselves. Appealing to “cultural” Christians is no longer a viable business strategy for most Christian retailers and some have pursued a different path – crafting stores that are resource centers for the church and a place of exploration for those that want to understand what convictional Christianity is really all about. Those that are still pandering to the Christian subculture that birthed the concept of a Christian products industry are going to struggle more and more in the years to come.
I am personally excited about the reality that calling yourself a Christian publisher or retailer is going to mean something again. Maybe we can move away from the moniker of “purveyors of Jesus Junk” or “sellers of inspirational content”. Instead, may we reclaim our mantle as producers and distributors of gospel-centered resources that will extend God’s Kingdom around the world. This changing landscape in America may spell the death of nominal Christianity, but it could also be the re-birth of Christian publishing and retailing. I long for the day when we no longer call ourselves an industry and instead see ourselves as a part of a movement – the Jesus Movement.