Two years ago we published an article on this site by the present author which documented the continued growth of theologically conservative Christian bodies and the continued decline of theologically liberal bodies (1). This article was based on a report the previous month in the Washington Post, which demonstrated the persistence of a trend that has been noted for decades in American religion by both religious and non-religious observers (2).
In the time that has elapsed since the above article was published, additional evidence suggests that this trend has continued, not only in the United States but in other Western countries as well. What follows is a brief survey of this evidence and the contrast it draws with many current assumptions regarding trends in America relative to both religion and secularism.
Flames and Embers
The Notre Dame cathedral fire several months ago sparked more than the destruction of a historic icon. Various columnists and commentators have used this disaster as a metaphor for what has been happening to European Christianity ever since the eighteenth century and the so-called “Enlightenment.” A USA Today editorial in the wake of the fire noted that “while most European adults identify as Christians, many are no longer practicing their faith” (3). This editorial cited a recent Pew Research survey indicating that in every European country except Italy, non-churchgoers outnumber churchgoers, and that in every country except Poland, church attendance is under 25 percent and in some cases in single digits (4).
The above editorial also noted that although most non-practicing European Christians claim to believe in God, only 24 percent believe in God as He is described in the Bible (5). According to another survey, at least one third of respondents in the United Kingdom answered, “I don’t know,” when asked whether trust in Jesus alone leads to salvation, whether the resurrection of Jesus actually occurred, whether hell is real, or whether Jesus will return to this earth as promised in the Scriptures (6).
But on the positive side, the editorial in question describes what it calls “glimmers of hope” so far as the future of European Christianity is concerned (7). In Germany, for example, “the state Lutheran Church is seeing growth in new members, and evangelical and Pentecostal churches are seeing solid growth” (8). Even in France, long noted for rampant and militant secularism, the editorial reports that “more and more French youth are identifying closely with their religious faith” (9).
The editorial closes with the following observation:
Secularism has attempted to stamp out the remaining embers of Christianity in Europe. But perhaps the enduring image of this week’s tragic fire at Notre Dame will not by the central spire collapsing in a raging fire, but thousands of Parisians on their knees in the streets, praying and singing hymns (10).
“Chasing Relevance”—and Losing It
It helps to again clarify, before our discussion proceeds, that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” in this dialogue do not refer to secular politics, but rather, to theology, spirituality, and moral choices. A recent article on the decline of the theologically liberal Episcopal Church made this point clear:
Make no mistake, this isn’t a debate about Left vs. Right in Church politics; there’s room for both. No, it’s about whether the Church talks chiefly about man or about God. Whether Christians have a distinct message at all (11).
The same article goes on to underscore the crisis facing the Episcopalians:
The wider U.S. Episcopal Church is facing extinction; just 500,000 attend its services on a Sunday, which an internal report calls a “profound and shocking decline.” Its sister church in England isn't doing much better.
The latest figures suggest that Church of England affiliation has halved since 2002 and that only 2 per cent of young people call themselves Anglican. This is despite the Church of England spending decades chasing cultural relevance. At the weekend, there was a discussion in this newspaper about whether or not God has a gender. "I don't want young girls or young boys to hear us constantly refer to God as he," said Rt Rev Rachel Treweek, the Bishop of Gloucester, because that might alienate people.
The Rev doesn't need to worry because no one is listening (12).
Other churches with liberal theological agendas, according to recent reports from the United States, are confronting the same trend. According to an October 2017 report in the Baltimore Sun, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has closed as many as eight churches since 2007 (13). According to the same article, two prominent Presbyterian churches in the same vicinity, faced with declining attendance and resulting financial challenges, chose to merge (14). LGBT equality is a conspicuous item on the agenda of at least one of these congregations (15).
According to another such report, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ—all theologically liberal—have lost nearly half their membership since 1990 (16). The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has lost a third during the same period (17). In Minnesota alone, the ELCA has lost 200,000 members and has closed 150 churches (18), and the United Methodist Church—whose recent struggles over the LGBT issue have grabbed notable headlines (19)—has closed 65 of its Minnesota churches since 2000 (20).
The recent saga of a gay-friendly evangelical megachurch in Nashville, Tennessee, has also illustrated this trend. GracePointe Church and its pastor had first made headlines by becoming “one of the first evangelical megachurches in the country to openly stand for full equality and inclusion of the LGBTQ community” (21). But soon thereafter, GracePointe was forced to sell its campus and relocated to rented space because of the withdrawal of financial support on account of the church’s new position on sexuality issues (22). Jeff Walton reported that “what was a much sought-after sign of Evangelical movement towards LGBT affirmation may have been wishful thinking on the part of cultural progressives” (23).
“A happy ending has not materialized,” another outlet reported. “Members have left, and the very fate of the church is at risk” (24). And sexuality issues were apparently not the only reason. Following the sale of GracePointe’s property, it was announced that the church would not only be renting space, but would be doing so with a progressive congregation describing itself as “unapologetically interfaith” (25).
Conservative Churches Hold Steady and Grow
But both of the above reports make it clear that the news isn’t all bad for the Christian community, at least not for those that are theologically conservative. The Baltimore Sun article stated that despite decline on the part of mainline, theologically liberal Christian bodies, “the Muslim and Orthodox Jewish populations are growing, and evangelical Christianity’s numbers are holding steady” (26). The Minneapolis Star-Tribune article quoted above likewise affirmed that “not every denomination or church is fragile. Some smaller evangelical denominations in Minnesota, such as Assemblies of God, and some megachurches report continued growth” (27).
Even more interesting is growing evidence that the increased number of persons who describe themselves as religiously “unaffiliated”—whose percentage of the American population has more than doubled between 1989 and 2016 (28)—is primarily due to the departure of church members from what some call “moderate” Christian bodies, as opposed to people leaving conservative bodies and becoming unaffiliated. (Many theological conservatives would likely exchange the “moderate” for the “liberal” label in describing many of these denominations.) Two recent researchers have gone so far as to say that “the rise of the unaffiliated is due solely to a dramatic decline of the moderately religious. Because strong affiliation remains stable while weaker affiliations have declined, those with a strong affiliation actually make up a larger share of the affiliated population over time” (29).
The above research also indicates that while “we see an upward trend in those who see the Bible as a book of fables” (30), it remains true that “the increase in this more secular category is a function of the decline in those who have a more moderate view of the Bible. Biblical literalism persists at about the same level over this time period (1990-2015)” (31).
In all, the above researchers confirm that “additional analyses going further back in time demonstrate that evangelicals grew from 1972, when they were 18 percent of the population, to a steady level of about 28 percent from 1989 to 2016. Mainline Protestants, perhaps the most moderate of American religionists, have declined especially rapidly from 35 percent of the population in 1972 to 12 percent of the population in 2016 (32).
Two points are clearest in this most recent research and reporting on trends in Western religion. First, it remains a fact of the Western Christian scene that theologically conservative denominations continue to grow, while theologically liberal denominations continue to shrink. Second, it appears that the recent rise of denominationally “unaffiliated” persons, particularly in America, is due not to a loss of membership among religious conservatives, but rather, to the decline in membership on the part of religiously liberal or “moderate” Christian communities.
In simple words, clarity of doctrine fills the pews. Ambiguity empties them. The record of the past half-century and more has shown doctrinal fluidity in the classic ecumenical mold to be a major attendance killer so far as public worship and religious affiliation are concerned. People who stand for nothing have a way of falling for anything
It is truly a sad thing to watch Christians try to “prove” their relevance. It’s like a man trying to prove his masculinity. A real man never has to prove it, and a relevant church never has to prove it either. Those upholding a “distinct message,” in Tim Stanley’s words (33), will always find an audience. Whether such a message is Biblically faithful or not is a separate issue. But the lesson that stands out in these trends of decline and growth is that a clear message of spiritual, doctrinal, and moral distinctiveness offers a much better chance of attracting honest truth-seekers than a message of ambiguity and cultural conformity.
1. Kevin Paulson, “Why Conservative Denominations Are Still Growing,” ADvindicate, Feb. 2, 2017 http://advindicate.com/articles/2017/2/2/why-conservative-denominations-are-still-growing
2. David Haskell, “Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving, Washington Post, Jan. 4, 2017.
3. Tom Copeland, “Notre Dame fire: Why should France rebuild cathedral? Embers of Christianity still burn,” USA Today, April 18, 2019 https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2019/04/18/notre-dame-cathedral-fire-france-macron-god-christianity-religion-column/3488597002/
11. Tim Stanley, “Why Western Christianity has a death wish,” Sydney Morning Herald, Sept. 18, 2018 https://www.smh.com.au/world/europe/why-western-christianity-has-a-death-wish-20180918-p504df.html
13. Jonathan M. Pitts, “Churches merge, close: ‘We no longer live in Christendom. We really have to accept that it’s a thing of the past,” Baltimore Sun, Oct. 10, 2017 https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bs-md-religious-consolidations-20171010-htmlstory.html
16. Jean Hopfensperger, “As Churches Close, A Way of Life Fades,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, July 8, 2018 http://www.startribune.com/as-minnesota-churches-close-a-way-of-life-fades/486037461/
19. Dakin Andone, “Fractured after vote against LGBT clergy, weddings, United Methodists face possible split,” CNN, March 2, 2019 https://www.wsmv.com/news/us_world_news/fractured-after-vote-against-lgbt-clergy-weddings-united-methodists-face/article_e74c3747-4551-5b33-9716-6eee503d350a.html William H. Willimon, “The Methodist mess in St. Louis,” The Christian Century,” Feb. 27, 2019 https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/guest-post/methodist-mess-st-louis?fbclid=IwAR1-jAN_TTqkA1gSnEpNgnAIzAD03wM5OdabapzYEhEsJ10O9-6Ekc6Arhg
20. Hopfensperger, “As Churches Close, A Way of Life Fades,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, July 8, 2018 http://www.startribune.com/as-minnesota-churches-close-a-way-of-life-fades/486037461/
21. Jeff Walton, “GracePointe and the Elusive LGBT-affirming Megachurch,” Virtueonline, Nov. 10, 2017 http://virtueonline.org/gracepointe-and-elusive-lgbt-affirming-megachurch
26. Pitts, “Churches merge, close: ‘We no longer live in Christendom. We really have to accept that it’s a thing of the past,” Baltimore Sun, Oct. 10, 2017 https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bs-md-religious-consolidations-20171010-htmlstory.html
27. Hopfensperger, “As Churches Close, A Way of Life Fades,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, July 8, 2018 http://www.startribune.com/as-minnesota-churches-close-a-way-of-life-fades/486037461/
28. Landan Schnabel and Sean Bock, “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion: A Response to Recent Research,” Sociological Science, Nov. 27, 2017, p. 688.
29. Ibid, p. 689.
30. Ibid, p. 691.
33. Stanley, “Why Western Christianity has a death wish,” Sydney Morning Herald, Sept. 18, 2018 https://www.smh.com.au/world/europe/why-western-christianity-has-a-death-wish-20180918-p504df.html
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan