Tuesday, June 29, 2010

church decline

It's popular these days to write about the decline of the church - especially the church in America. Popular writers who aren't writing about decline are often writing about problems within the church - which of course would fuel its decline. I personally do not see the church in massive decline nor do I see her as sickly and gravely unhealthy. In regard to the institutional church, while there are clearly issues, there is also much good. In regard to The Church as the Bride of Christ, I am part of her and I love her - she is righteous.

Because of that I found this analysis in Why We Love the Church refreshing.

The church in America, it is said, is dying a death of attrition. Our most faithful members, who also happen to be the most generous, are dying off. Young people are leaving the faith and not coming back. And the lost are harder to reach than ever. Ironically, as the mainstream media fears an impending Christian theocracy, Christians in America fear their own extinction, or at least their irrelevance.

Yet, the news is not all bad. In February 1939, pollster George Gallup started asking Americans "Did you happen to go to church last Sunday?" In that year 41 percent said yes. The wording has been altered slightly over the years, but basically the same question has been asked every year since. And the percentage responding "yes" has barely changed. From 2000 to 2005 the "yeses" in Gallup's church poll ranged from 40 to 44 Percent. In terms of actual attendance, we find that in 1990 on any given weekend 52 million people in America attended a church. In 2005, the number still stood at 52 million. The wheels haven't fallen off yet.

But the news is not all good either. For starters, far fewer people actually go to church than the numbers suggest. It's called the "halo effect"-people give better answers to pollsters than they live out in real life. By one estimate, only 17.5 percent of the American public actually attend church on any given weekend, even though more than twice as many report that they do. Furthermore, while the number of people in church has stayed the same over the past fifteen years (about 52 million), the percentage of churchgoers has decreased. Simply put, church growth has not kept pace with population growth. The same number of people may go to church, but since there are more people in the country, the number of churchgoers as a percentage of the whole goes down. So, according to Olson, while 20.4 percent of Americans went to church on any given weekend in 1990, only 17.5 percent went in 2005, and, by his estimates, only 14.7 percent will be in church on any given weekend by 2020.

This is not a good trajectory. Anyone who loves Jesus Christ wants to see His church grow. But keep in mind that these numbers do not represent declining overall membership, but rather church membership that is not growing on pace with the increased population. This too is a problem. Believe me, I am not advocating an indifference to the lack of church growth in America. I want to see the percentage line going up, not down. And the fact that it is going down is worth our prayers and reflection (more on that shortly). But the claims of the church's imminent demise are grossly exaggerated. Even though only 17.5 percent of Americans attend on any given weekend (assuming this lower percentage is accurate), 37 percent still attend at least once a month, and 52 percent report belonging to some church tradition. Again, I wish more people believed in Christ and that the people who claim church affiliation actually showed up in church every Sunday, but when over a hundred million people in this country attend church at least once a month, it seems a bit of a hyperbole to suggest that the church in America is about to disappear into thin air.

Moreover, when we look more closely at recent church decline we see that the decline has not happened uniformly across the board. Recall that from 1990 to 2005, the percentage of Americans in church on any given weekend fell from 20.4 percent to 17.5 percent. During the same time period the percentage of those attending the establishment mainline churches fell from 3.9 to 3.0 percent, while those attending a Roman Catholic church declined from 7.2 percent to 5-3 percent. But the percentage in evangelical churches was almost identical, going from 9.2 percent in 1990 to 9.1 percent in 2005. Keep in mind these are percentages of the total population. This means the actual number of people attending an evangelical church on any weekend rose by several million over the last decade and a half. Almost all of the net loss in percentage of church attendance came from Catholic and more liberal Protestant churches. For example, in raw numbers, the mainline churches declined 21 percent in membership (from 29 million to 22 million) from 1960 to 2000, while at the same time overall church membership in the United States rose by 33 Percent.

So the story of declining church attendance percentage is not the story of a newfound dissatisfaction with the church at large, as much as it is the continuing story of Catholics and mainline Protestants losing their young (to evangelical churches or to no church), parents in mainline and Catholic pews not having as many children as evangelicals, and the old (who are found disproportionately among mainline churches) dying off.

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dle said...

I have heard that the number of men attending church has fallen off a cliff. Sources don't always agree, but the most stable number I see is that men comprise around 32% (down about 10 percentage points in the last 20 years) of any given church population. As this is counting people who actually attend church regularly, the numbers are far worse for men as a whole.

Geoff Matheson said...

I think that lots of those who are talking about the decline of the church are speaking in broader terms than just looking at the US (not all are, but many are), and it is certainly true in the Western world as a whole that church membership/attendance has been in massive decline. That's certainly the story across Europe, and here in Australia.

And I think that like the author you've quoted: most people (again, not all) commenting on the decline of the church do come from a place of deep concern and love. And often people are looking at the trends worldwide and are seeing some concern.

Still, it's good to see some vaguely good news in the mix.