One of my biggest questions from the past 20+ years was this one. I decided to start with this question because of the name of this blog: To the Remnant.
It used to puzzle me in the 1990s when I saw surveys that estimated 90% of Americans believed in God. I soon understood that there are a lot of gods people believe in. Then I saw estimates about the percentage of Christians in the U.S., which was almost invariably between 60% and 70%. Taking it a step further, the percentage of evangelicals was typically estimated to be between 30% and 40%. It seemed to me that I was getting closer to finding out what percentage of Americans were Christians. However, 35% still seemed to me to be inflated for two reasons.
First of all, the American church seemed to be very anemic. If one third of Americans were Christians, why weren’t we having more of an impact on society? Why was American society moving further and further away from virtue? Why did it seem that “tolerance” was becoming more and more “virtuous,” including in the church? Why was it that causing offense to an unbeliever was becoming one of the worst things a Christian can do? To be clear, I’m not in favor of causing offense for an unbiblical reason, but I Peter 2:7-8 says, “But to those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,’ and ‘A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.'”
Second, the Lord Himself said in Matthew 7:13-14, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Notice the words “many” and “few.” It is certainly possible that in a given society at a given time, the majority of people are on the narrow road to heaven, but it didn’t seem like the U.S. fit that conclusion. Instead, it seemed like “few” was much closer to the truth.
In 2008, the Pew Forum published a research study about the American religious landscape. One very important question that American evangelicals were asked was, “Are there many religions that lead to eternal life?” A very disturbing 57% of the respondents answered, “Yes.” Since by that time, the number of Americans who claimed to be evangelicals was ~25%, that meant about 11% of Americans believed that Jesus was the only way to heaven. I should add that there are American Christians who do not claim to be “evangelical,” including some Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox. I estimated at the time that perhaps 13% of Americans were Christians.
In 2013, John Dickerson wrote The Great Evangelical Recession. He cited four different research studies (one from 1998, the other three from 2008-2011) that sought to determine what percentage of Americans were evangelical Christians. Three of those studies came up with 7%, and one with 8.9%; do the math, and you come up with 7.5%. If you add in Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox who don’t claim to be “evangelical” but who are true Christians, perhaps the number of American Christians is between 9% and 10%.
One caveat about these numbers is that how the word “evangelical” is defined is not always consistent. However, the 2008 Pew Forum study that I mentioned includes both belief and obedience. Regardless of whether the four researchers cited in Dickerson’s book agree precisely on the definition of “evangelical,” the fact that three came up with the same percentage and that the fourth was not drastically different give me confidence that the percentage of American Christians is probably below 10.
I do not take pleasure in the likelihood that the vast majority of Americans are on the road to hell. I also believe that things will get worse before they get better. It wouldn’t surprise me if we “bottom out” at 4% and then start to reverse course. I also believe that the American church, meaning the Lord’s people in the U.S., will emerge much stronger.