By Dr. Riley Case
How goes the church in the United States? It is an appropriate question to ask in the light of the recent study by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement that reported that Christianity is dying and headed for extinction in nine western countries and is in trouble in other western countries.
On the one hand there is reason for alarm. Some time ago (April 4, 2009)Newsweek magazine featured a cover story, “The End of Christian America,” that reported that the percentage of self-identified Christians had fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent . It also reported that the number of persons unaffiliated with any particular faith had grown from 5% in 1988 to 12% in 2008. Meanwhile, the number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic had increased from 1 million to 3.6 million persons between 1990 and 2009. Things are no more rosy in an article in Christianity Today, (Nov. 2010) entitled “The Leavers.” The article makes reference to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study that reports that young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate (30% to 40% have no religion today, versus 5% to 10% a generation ago).
The secularists are full of glee. Finally, they proclaim, Americans are coming of age. For the past 100 years, since secularism began to dominate academia and liberal culture it has been an article of faith (no pun intended) that modernization would gradually but ultimately lead to the demise of religion, or at least religious influence. How then to explain the explosion of Christianity in our day in South America, Africa, and Asia, even as these areas experience modernization? The only response from secularists drips with racial, cultural, and religious imperialism: such areas are not as enlightened as the west.
With or without studies United Methodists and other mainline denominations have reason for discouragement. United Methodism continues its numerical decline, though it must be said that UM decline is not nearly as great as other mainline denominations. According to the 2011 Yearbook American and Canadian Churches, while the United Methodist Church lost about 1% of its members in 2009 the United Church of Christ lost 2.8%, the Presbyterian Church USA lost 2.6%, the Episcopal Church 2.5%, the Evangelical Lutheran Church 2% and the American Baptist Church 1.55%. As a whole, church membership in America fell from 163 million to 160 million.
Furthermore, even evangelicals are now admitting that secularism is making serious inroads into American culture. America is trending away from such long-standing Christian standards in sexuality as celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage. In secular eyes the Christian understanding of marriage is rejected and marriage between persons of the same sex is interpreted as a ‘civil right.’ “
But there is another point of view. Studies can be notoriously unreliable. True, the church no longer has the support of the larger culture that it once had. True, Christians, and especially evangelicals, are being shuttered out of the public square by spurious arguments relating to church and state. True, numbers of our churches, even evangelical churches, struggle.
But Christians have always worried about moral and spiritual decline. It is almost a matter of faith that things were better in days gone by, whenever those were. The point can be made that American Christianity, especially evangelicalism, is alive and well, if not growing. Many modern surveys are flawed because the surveyors do not know how to assess the strength of one of the most spectacular developments in modern church history, namely, the rise of megachurches and free-standing ministries, Christian centers, community churches, fellowships, and para-church ministries.
The Baylor Religion Survey has examined much of this. A thorough report is given in the February, 2011 issue of First Things in the article “The Good News About Evangelicalism.” Instead of relying on questions about religious preference alone, the survey identified respondents by religious family, denomination, and local congregation.
Nondenominational churches now represent the second-largest group of Protestant churches in America, and the fastest growing section of the American religious market.
Members of nondenominational churches or ministries often identify themselves on surveys as “unaffiliated” or even as having “no religion.” When the Pew Forum reported that 44 percent of Americans had recently switched religious affiliation many persons believed that meant Christians were deserting their faith. It is more likely that they simply moved to a nondenominational ministry. According to the Baylor study while membership in mainline denominations declined 49 percent from 1960 to 2000, membership in evangelical denominations and churches increased 156%. The Baylor study identifies only 4% of Americans as atheists, not 10% to 15% as reported in other studies.
The church directory in my local newspaper lists 64 different churches in the community where I live. 14 of the 64 are independent including the 3 churches with the largest attendance in the community. Some independent churches have not even bothered to be listed in the directory. The 2011 Yearbook recognizes this reality. If the independent and megachurches were counted the statistics would look quite different. Furthermore, the Yearbook comments that persons now in their 20s and 30s tend not to aspire to institutional membership, yet they may be professing believers in independent ministries. And despite the wringing of hands that young persons in their 20s are abandoning the faith, Christian para-church groups are attracting college students by the thousands. The last Inter-Varsity missionary conference drew over 18,000 persons. Passion 2010 drew 21,000. Thousands of church and college groups are engaged in short-term missionary projects.
Furthermore, church attendance is up. The most recent Gallup survey, which has tracked church attendance in America, reports that in 2009, 43.1% of Americans reported weekly or almost weekly church attendance, up from 42.1% in 2008.
What conclusions can we draw from all of these studies? The advance of knowledge and education in America has not brought the disintegration of Christian faith that many have predicted. Americans are still people of faith. During the Revolutionary War only 10% of Americans were identified as church members. Today that figure is close to 65%. 78% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. The home schooling movement, in large part a reaction to the secularization of public schools, now enrolls about 2 million children. Over 1,500 evangelical groups now belong to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
Does this have any significance for United Methodism? It should. The denomination is looking in the wrong places for help in reversing its membership decline. Forty-five years of studies, recommendations, programs, initiatives, consultations, missional priorities, focuses and slogans have been based on institutional models that do not work. We have the same kind of leadership attending the same kind of schools trying the same kind of programs operating with the same kind of theology and nothing changes and the decline continues.
We live in a different day. The gospel is the same. Christ died for our sins and by faith we are saved for eternal life. The gospel is not made more meaningful or relevant by seeking to adjust it to modern culture. Mission and outreach and evangelism are best done by churches which are quite capable of following the directives of the Spirit without the intervening directives by denominational bureaucrats. Local churches are quite capable of being involved in mission without sending their money to far off committees who believe they know best how someone else’s money is best used.
Is there an end to Christianity in the West? Not in the United States. Not in The United Methodist Church either if we can find the theological and spiritual renewal that God intends for us.
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