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.
This migration is known as the “Browning of America,” a phrase describing a demographic shift that is expected to make White people the minority in the US by 2045.
Those who predict that the church in America will collapse often overlook how the migration of Global South Christians to America will revitalize the country’s religious landscape, scholars say. Christianity could rebound in America if White Christians embrace this one change, they say.
Tish Harrison Warren, a New York Times columnist, pointed out recently that Latino evangelicals are now the fastest-growing group of evangelicals in the US.
“We cannot assume that America will become more secular so long as the future of America is less white,” Warren wrote.
The influx of Black and brown Christians from places like Latin America and Asia collides with another trend: a burgeoning White Christian nationalist movement that insists, incorrectly, that the US was founded as a White, Christian nation. It is hostile to non-White immigrants.
Some churches may discover that Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger collides with their definition of patriotism, Hamalis says.
“Many congregations don’t realize how much of their Christian identity is wrapped up with a kind of (Christian) nationalist narrative,” Hamalis says. “There’s nothing wrong with loving one’s country, but from a Christian perspective that ought to always be secondary to the mission of building the body of Christ and witnessing to the Gospel in the world.”
How Christianity could re-establish its dominance
There are other factors hiding in plain sight that point to the continued vitality of Christianity, others say.
For one, declining church membership doesn’t automatically translate into declining influence.
Consider some recent landmark events. White evangelicals played a critical role in getting former President Trump elected. Conservative Christian groups played a crucial role in the recent passage of state laws limiting LGBTQ rights. And the Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn Roe vs. Wade was a massive victory for many conservative Christians.
And atheism remains a taboo in American politics. American voters still prefer candidates – including presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden – who profess or evoke Christian beliefs.
“Christianity still holds a lot of capital in this country,” says Lee M. Jefferson, an associate professor of religion at Centre College in Kentucky.
“There has always been a popular notion that a religious community’s strength or influence is connected to numbers and attendance,” Jefferson says. “Even if there is ample space in cathedrals, Christianity will still hold some strong relevance in different landscapes in the US.”
Even the rise of the “nones,” the growing number of Americans who say they don’t care about religion, is not as much of a threat to the church as initial reports suggest, scholars say.
A growing number of Americans may no longer identify as Christian, but many still care about spirituality, says Hans Gustafson, author of “Everyday Wisdom: Interreligious Studies for a Pluralistic World.”
“Just because more Americans are disaffiliating with institutionalized religion — most notably Christian traditions — this does not always mean that people are becoming less religious,” says Gustafson, director of the Jay Phillips Center for Interreligious Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
“Many still practice spirituality: prayer, meditation… and sometimes even regularly attend religious houses of worship,” he says.
Among Americans with no religious affiliation, some still pray daily and say religion is very important in their lives, Gustafson says.
He cites a surprising finding from a 2018 Pew Research Center study of religion in Western Europe. The study found that nones in the US are “much more likely” to pray and believe in God than their European counterparts, said Neha Sahgal, a vice president of research at Pew.
“In fact, by some of these standard measures of religious commitment, American ‘nones’ are as religious as — or even more religious than — Christians in several European countries, including France, Germany and the UK,” Sahgal wrote.
Why the Easter message offers a note of hope
Despite the optimism of many religious scholars, the future of Christianity in America still seems uncertain. Poll numbers about the decline of religiousness in the US cannot be ignored, along with something more intangible: the frailties of human nature.
What if the US enters another xenophobic period and limits migration from non-White Christians?
What if progressive Christians prove unwilling to align with non-White immigrants who tend to be more conservative on issues of sexuality and gender?
And what if some Christians still cling to the belief that America is supposed to be a White Christian nation, even if that assumption causes them to close their church doors to non-White immigrants who could be their salvation?
If that happens, an Easter morning symbol in American churches won’t just be an empty tomb, but empty pews.
But Hamalis, the religion professor who saw Christianity boom in South Korea, says Christians who fear that kind of future can take solace in the Easter message.
“From a Christian perspective, there’s nothing to fear because even death has been conquered,” Hamalis says. “When we are liberated from that fear, we can embrace the person who’s different from us, who speaks a different language or comes from a different culture. We can put ourselves out there in a way that we can’t if we’re just afraid.”
He and other scholars envision a vibrant future for Christianity in the US that’s shared by Warren, the New York Times columnist:
“The future of American Christianity is neither white evangelicalism nor white progressivism,” Warren wrote. “The future of American Christianity now appears to be a multiethnic community that is largely led by immigrants of the children of immigrants.”
If the American church can embrace this future and reverse its shrinking membership, it will have experienced its own resurrection.
John Blake is a Senior Writer at CNN and the author of “More Than I Imagined: What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew.”