The cross, and the empty tomb.
Both Christian symbols are bookends to the Easter story. One symbolizes the tragic execution of Jesus while the other represents the Christian belief in his resurrection, and the claim that death does not have the final word on him or his followers.
As millions of Americans celebrate the holiest day in the Christian calendar on Sunday, most will hear some variation of this Easter message — finding new life in unforeseen places.
But that message could also describe a surprising prediction about the future of Christianity in the US.
For years, church leaders and commentators have warned that Christianity is dying in America. They say the American church is poised to follow the path of churches in Western Europe: soaring Gothic cathedrals with empty pews, shuttered church buildings converted into skate parts and nightclubs, and a secularized society where one theologian said Christianity as a norm is “probably gone for good — or at least for the next 100 years.”
Yet when CNN asked some of the nation’s top religion scholars and historians recently about the future of Christianity in the US, they had a different message.
They said the American church is poised to find new life for one major reason: Waves of Christians are migrating to the US.
And they said the biggest challenge to Christianity’s future in America is not declining numbers, but the church’s ability to adapt to this migration.
Joseph P. Slaughter, a historian and assistant professor of religion at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, says people have been predicting the extinction of Christianity in the US for over two centuries, and it hasn’t happened yet.
He pointed to Thomas Jefferson, one of the nation’s founding fathers, who predicted in the 1820s that Christianity would be replaced in the US by a more enlightened form of religion that rejected Jesus’ divinity and belief in miracles.
Instead, Jefferson’s prophecy was followed by a series of revivals, including the Second Great Awakening, which swept across America and reasserted Christianity as a dominant force in American life.
“I’d never bet against American Christianity — particularly evangelicalism,” Slaughter says, “and its ability to adapt and remain a significant shaper of the American society.”
What’s happening in Europe is the church’s nightmare scenario
If one only looks at the numbers, Slaughter’s optimism seems misguided. Virtually every recent poll about Christianity in America has been brutal for its followers.
About 64% of Americans call themselves Christian today. That might sound like a lot, but 50 years ago that number was 90%, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center study. That same survey said the Christian majority in the US may disappear by 2070.
The Covid-19 pandemic also hurt the church in America. Church attendance has rebounded recently but remains slightly below pre-pandemic levels. A 2021 Gallup poll revealed another grim number for Christians: church membership in the US has fallen below 50% for the first time.
In addition, a cascade of headlines in recent years have stained the church’s reputation, including sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention; the spread of White Christian nationalism; and the perception that the church oppresses marginalized groups such as LGBTQ people.
Church leaders in the US also have fretted about the rise of “nones.” These are people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” when asked their religious identity.
The ascent of nones will transform the country’s religious and political landscape, says Tina Wray, a professor of religious and theological studies at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. About 30% of Americans now call themselves nones.
“The interest of the nones will soon outweigh those of the religious right in just a matter of years,” Wray says. “Nones are going to vote as a bloc and they’re going to be pretty powerful. White evangelicals will eventually be eclipsed by the unaffiliated.”
Wray says those who are optimistic about the future of the American church underestimate how quickly Christianity can lose its influence even in a place where it once thrived. She cites what’s happened in the Republic of Ireland, an overwhelmingly Catholic country.
The Catholic Church prohibits divorce and was once so powerful in Ireland that the country wouldn’t legally grant its citizens the legal right to a divorce until 1995, says Wray, author of “What the Bible Really Tells Us: The Essential Guide to Biblical Literacy.” But Wray adds that she recently traveled to Ireland and discovered many of its citizens have left the religion. Churches are being closed and turned into apartment buildings, she says.
“People who went to mass everyday stopped going,” she says. “There’s this cultural Catholic identity, but as far as practicing their faith, it’s just disappearing. So within a generation, that’s all it took. It’s just shocking.”
Why the American church’s future may be different than Europe’s
Most of the religious scholars CNN spoke to said the American church may find salvation in another demographic trend: the booming of Christianity in what is called the “Global South,” the regions encompassing Latin America, Africa and Asia.
The world’s largest megachurch, for example, is not in the US. It’s in South Korea. The Yoido Full Gospel Church has a weekly attendance of about 600,000 members.
Perry Hamalis spent time as a Fulbright Scholar in South Korea, where he personally witnessed the vitality of the Christian church in the Global South.
He says the church is not perceived in South Korea as an instrument of oppression, but one of liberation. When South Korea was colonized by the Japanese in the early 20th century, the church aligned with Koreans to protest.
“Christianity was looked at not as a religion of empire and of the colonizers, but as the religion of the anti-colonial movement and of pro-democracy,” says Hamalis, a religion professor at North Central College in Illinois.
The US has more immigrants than any other country. People from Latin America and Asia now make up the overwhelming majority of immigrants to the US, and many are bringing their religious fervor with them.