FOX31 visits Bethlehem as Christian pilgrims travel to holy site

Data pix.

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- More than 3 million people visited the little town of Bethlehem in 2019 to see the place where tradition says Jesus was born.

FOX31's Jeremy Hubbard and Joe St. George were among them.

Earlier this year, their team traveled to the Holy Land for a deeper look at the state of religion in 2019. Everywhere they visited in the Holy Land, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, they found legions of Christian pilgrims. Hard to believe it from the masses of tourists, but Christianity is actually facing a numbers problem. Back home in the U.S., the landscape of faith is changing.

A study from the Pew Research Center released just two months ago comes with this headline: In US, Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace. Its survey found 65 percent of Americans identified themselves as Christian. That's down 12 percent in a decade. Another key finding: less than half of millennials (49%) identify as Christian. It may be the first time in U.S. history that a majority of young people don't consider themselves Christian.

We asked University of Denver Religious Studies professor Gregory Robbins about the decline.

"You know, I've begun to notice it more in the past two or three years," Robbins said.

He says his students tend to be much more tuned into world events now, and much more aware of the role religion plays in conflict. Additionally, they're much less tolerant of any church that seems intolerant. But they haven't slammed the door on Christianity altogether.

"They know that religion is one of the keys that unlocks the puzzle of what it means to be living in the 21st century," Robbins said.

"They're not identifying with traditional, denominational Christianity. If they're attracted to Christianity, then tend to be attracted to non-denominational community churches that have rock music, but it has to have a kind of authenticity about it," he added.

Maybe that explains some of the success of places like Flatirons Community Church. The church has campuses all over the metro, and typically attracts a crowd of 16,000 to 18,000 people every Sunday. At Christmas, those crowd numbers double.

Their main campus in Lafayette used to be a Walmart and a grocery store. They combined the two to help accommodate the large crowds. Their reach seems to belie those statistics about the dwindling numbers of Christians in our country.

But a few years back, they realized something: most of the people who enjoy their services don't actually attend in person. About 100,000 people watch the service on a device. It's church on demand.

"A lot of people engage strictly online," said lead pastor Jim Burgen, adding, "The world's changing, you know, and to say the only way that I go to church is to go to a building and sit in a chair, that's a thing of the past."

Traditionalists may have a quarrel with it, but at Flatirons they see it as a high-tech way of reaching people, just as Jesus did.

"I think there's a lot of man-made rules that we've kind of created. One of our values here is to take all the weird stuff out of the way, so people can just find Jesus, and I think there's a lot of things that unintentionally, we put blockades on people. Like meeting our schedule and our time frame. I don't find that with Jesus. He seemed to go where they were, and meet them with what they were doing... and we're trying to do the same thing," Burgen said.

It's one local church's approach to navigating the changes of faith in America. To learn more about what Flatirons and other local congregations are doing, and to see more of FOX31's journey to the Holy Land, watch our special: "What Does Christmas Mean in 2019," below.

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