The cover story in The New York Times Magazine for March 27, 2005, featured an Assembly of God megachurch in Surprise, Arizona, about 45 minutes northwest of downtown Phoenix. The pastor, Lee McFarland, founded Radiant Church in 1996, and now weekend attendance has now reached 5,000 people. Impressive? Yes, until you stop to think what the impact of this kind of Christianity has been on the Christian enterprise as a whole. Many people have failed to realize that the success of fundamentalism in this country has been gained at a terrible price, the loss of respect for Christianity among people who want to think for themselves.
The story of Surprise, Arizona, is a good example of what has been happening around the country. The author of the Times story, Jonathan Mahler, notes that Surprise, a town of 80,000 people, has 27 other churches, but he dismisses them with the observation that "none of them are growing at anything that approaches the pace of Radiant." He does not supply statistics – maybe they are not available – but we can make some guesses based on national averages. Half of the churches in the United States have fewer than 100 members, and only 10% have more than 400 members, which puts them in the class of "large churches". Let us give those 27 churches the benefit of the doubt and assume that on the average they are large churches with a membership of 500, for a total of 13,500. If you add in Radiant’s 5,000 members, you will see that 18,500 church members are the most you are likely to find in Surprise. On the basis of my informed guesses, at least 73% of the Surprise citizens have no church connection at all.
Would other churches in town have better luck if Radiant were not giving Christianity a reputation for being anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, anti-gay, and anti-choice in medical decisions such as the end of life and the termination of pregnancy? No one can say for sure, but the statistics collected by the National Council of Churches and various polling agencies suggest that while groups such as the Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptists grew rapidly in the latter half of the 20th century, church membership as a whole declined. The so-called main line churches suffered serious losses, but the most significant trend may have been among those who claim no religious affiliation. In 1952, only 2% of the people polled claimed no connection with organized religion. By 1990, the figure had climbed to 10%. According to a survey conducted by the City University of New York, by 2001, 19% of the people in this county did not identify themselves with any particular religion. According to this survey, during the same period, 1990 to 2001, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christians declined from 86% to 77%.
From my college course in logic, I am aware of the weakness in any argument based on post hoc ergo propter hoc, after this therefore because of this, so I will admit that I cannot prove the decline in American Christianity as a whole is entirely the result of fundamentalism’s success in winning converts. I do think, however, that in the minds of most people who read newspapers and magazines the word "Christian" has become identified with extreme conservatism. Only a generation ago, according to most dictionaries, you could call someone a Christian and mean a decent, respectable human being. Today, if you identify someone as a Christian, most of the people I know will assume that you mean a narrow-minded, self-righteous bigot.
The negative connotation has made considering Christianity as an option unlikely for many well-informed people. To get their attention, churches reaching out to them can never use the word "Christian" without a qualifying adjective, such as progressive. Even when we do, we have a hard time convincing the skeptical that we are different from the politically influential right-wing Christians they read about in the news. Is it any wonder that a shrinking number of people in America are willing to call themselves Christians?