Let’s fly up to high altitude for a moment, before reading two interesting think pieces about those Gallup Poll numbers — “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time” — that launched a kazillion headlines.
If you’ve been paying attention to the state of Christianity in America for the past 50 years or so, you’re aware of several broad trends.
* In terms of demographics, the world of oldline Protestantism — the “Seven Sisters” churches — is in freefall, with these aging denominations losing around 50% of their members after peaking in the 1960s.
* Catholic churches have grown, kind of, in part due to rising numbers of Latinos in the pews. Worship numbers are down. New vocations for priests and nuns are way down (but it’s fascinating to note the cases in which numbers are steady, or rising). Mass attendance and birth-rate trends are crucial.
* Evangelical Protestants surged, especially in the Sunbelt, filling much of the public-square void created by mainline decline. Growth was especially strong with charismatics and Pentecostals — Black and White. In the past decade or two, the rapid growth of nondenominational or even post-denominational churches and networks has hurt mainstream evangelicalism, especially the Southern Baptist Convention.
Summary: Churches are growing or holding steady if members are (a) having children, (b) raising children in the faith, (c) retaining the loyalty of those children into the next generation and (d) winning converts (that final point has more to do with doctrine than politics).
Notice that the words “Donald Trump” are missing. Like I said, this is a view from the heavens.
With all that in mind, let’s look at two essays: “Why American Church Membership Is Plummeting,” by historian Thomas Kidd, care of The Gospel Coalition website, and “Why the Church Is Losing the Next Generation,” in the latest newsletter by the Rev. Russell Moore of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
First, here are two crucial chunks of the Kidd essay, which opens — logically enough — with a discussion of the weaknesses of polling data.
… (A)s I have suggested before, we should take religion polls with a grain of salt. … They usually tell us about some trends on the religious landscape, to be sure, but they are almost always open to widely varying interpretation. Polls are at their best when there is little wiggle room for interpretation in the data. For example, you can be pretty certain what the answer means when a pollster asks, “Did you vote for Joe Biden?”
Any time the answers are qualitative, as they usually are with religion, we should be more skeptical. Even something like “church membership” is an elusive category. Does that mean you consider yourself part of a denomination, or a local church? A religious tradition, or a particular congregation?
Gallup lists the actual question as “Do you happen to be a member of a church, synagogue, or mosque?” I imagine that the implication of this question might be clearer for “synagogue or mosque” than “church,” which to some respondents could mean a denomination or religious tradition, although the pollsters seem also to have asked about respondents’ “affiliation” with a religious tradition.
Still, for more parish-based Christian traditions, “being a member” might mean “I was baptized there, married there, and I expect my funeral will be there.” But that would not exactly make you an “active” member of a congregation.
There are also plenty of people who actively attend churches who are not members, either because membership is not emphasized, or because they have some doctrinal or denominational hang-up that keeps them from joining. Thus, you might have many people who identify as “members” but who rarely attend, while others know they are not members, but they’re present every Sunday.
Later, there is this challenging passage:
If you really want to worry about a demographic trend, note the plummeting rates of marriage and especially childbearing in America, statistics that have a strong correlation with church attendance.
The overall picture of declining church membership should be of interest, but not special worry to Reformed and evangelical believers. We’re not so much concerned with “mere” church members, but “regenerate” church members. And evangelicals have been at their best — such as during the First and Second Great Awakenings — when they had to work hard at drawing people into church with crystal-clear proclamation of the gospel, and with caring service to the needs of congregations.
A lot of the church decline has to do with the death of cultural Christianity in America. This development is of concern, of course, and may encourage increasingly prominent cultural roles for rabidly anti-Christian views. There is also a risk that churches may supply an ever-dwindling amount of “social capital” that has been a major benefit for attendees since the colonial period. Church attendance, on balance, leads to better outcomes in gauges of human flourishing, such as family stability, supportive friendships, charitable giving and service, and so on.
I put together a really simple linear model to project what American religion will look like in the next decade.
The results indicate that the “nones” will unequivocally be the largest group in America in 2029, and that’s largely a result of more mainline decline (10.8%->4.4%). https://t.co/NF6PbrEAMR
— Ryan Burge 📊 (@ryanburge) October 24, 2019
That leads Kidd to a discussion of Moore and his approach to this era.
Thus, it is wise for journalists and news consumers to read Moore on this same topic. This piece opens with a frank discussion of a time when Moore, as a teen, almost lost his faith and was driven to despair by the state of Bible Belt Christianity. In other words, he had his crisis early, before the trendy headlines. Politics played some role in this:
Even as a teenager, I could see that the “voting guides” that showed up in Bible Belt America were kind of like the horoscopes one could find in the newspaper. The horoscope could say, “Today you will find a surprising new opportunity,” and a certain sort of credulous person would be amazed at how this just happened to be true — without ever thinking about the fact that this is true of virtually every human being at virtually every moment, if one just pays attention to it. Likewise, the voter guides lined out the “Christian” view from the “anti-Christian view” on a list of issues that just happened to line up with the favored party’s platform that year. Somehow the Bible suddenly gave us a “Christian view” on a balanced budget amendment or a line-item veto, things that, like the European common market as a sign of the last days, were never noticed in the text until the favored candidates started emphasizing such things.
And along with all that came apocalyptic warnings that if these candidates weren’t elected, or these policies weren’t enacted, we would “lose our entire culture.” But when those candidates lost, no one headed for the bunkers. The culture didn’t fall — at least not any more than it had before. I started to wonder whether religion itself — or at least the kind of Christianity that showed up in the slogans all around me — might really be about something else: southern culture or politics. If so, I thought, that would mean that Jesus is not the Way, the Truth, and the Life, but a means to an end. And that would mean that the gospel is not “You must be born again,” but “You must be one of us.”
All that was terrifying to me because I really believed that Jesus was the Son of the Living God. I really believed that Jesus loved me … for the Bible told me so.
Politics has played a role in all of this, of course. Many young people are cynical about what they are seeing, these days, as some evangelical leaders have decided that they can create — or defend — the Kingdom of God via the ballot box.
For Moore, the goal is to defend the basics of traditional Christianity — while living them day after day in real life. If young people reject that, then so be it.
This next section is long, but crucial:
… (I)t seems to me that the controversy is not actually even over the specific political planks or ideas or personalities as the fact that many have come to believe that the religion itself is a vehicle for the politics and the cultural grievances — and not the other way around.
And it’s not difficult to see why. I watched twenty years ago as people suggested that those waving away a president’s sexual behavior as irrelevant to his public office were the result of liberal forms of Baptist theology, and then lived long enough to watch the same people suggest that those who did not wave away such behavior from another president might not be “real Christians.” People can change their minds, of course. I certainly have done so on many things. But … there is no talk of minds changing, just certainties in one direction and then certainties in the opposite direction, with the only difference being the tribal affiliations of the leaders under discussion.
The trends in secularization mean that people do not need the church in order to see themselves as Americans or as good people or even as “spiritual.” And they certainly do not need the church in order to carry out their political affiliations — even when those political affiliations are those preferred by the church. If evangelicalism is politics, people can get their politics somewhere else — and fight and fornicate and get drunk too, if they want. A religion that calls people away from Western modernity will have to say, with credibility, “Take up your cross and follow me,” not “Come with us, and we’ll own the libs.” One can do the latter on YouTube and one needn’t even give up a Sunday morning. …
We might reassure ourselves when we see the proliferating “Nones” among our youth that the reason they are leaving is because they want to run their own lives and pursue the sexual hedonism the church (rightly) forbids. Some of that is no doubt the case. But if one believes the Bible, one knows that wanting to run one’s own life is not a new development with modernity. And one need only know a little bit of high school biology to know that the desire for sexual hedonism didn’t start in the Obama Administration. First-century Athens, Greece, was just as intellectually averse to Christianity as is twenty-first century Athens, Georgia—and far more sexually “liberated” too. And the gospel went forth and the churches grew.
The problem now is not that people think the church’s way of life is too demanding, too morally rigorous, but that they have come to think the church doesn’t believe its own moral teachings. The problem is not that they reject the idea that God could send anyone to hell but that, when they see the church covering up predatory behavior in its institutions, they have evidence that the church believes God would not send “our kind of people” to hell. If people reject the church because they reject Jesus and the gospel, we should be saddened but not surprised.
There is much more to read, and ponder, in both of these essays. For journalists, there are potential hooks for hard-news reporting all over the place.
So read all of the scary poll-number stories. But think about the bigger religion-news picture, as well.