I have a whole shelf of books about the decline of Christianity in the American context and they only scratch the surface of the total literature on the topic. I am sure we all have our favorites and we are more than ready to argue for models, views, and conclusions that we find most compelling. Let’s agree not to do that and instead let me make a different kind of argument for your consideration.
I will present some data drawn from the Baylor Religion Surveys and the General Social Surveys to make my own case for our present moment in the “religion” space. (“Space” for the purposes of this essay is used as it is in Business to describe a particular area where business models are conceived and executed. E.g. Facebook dominates the social media space.). The data in my view tells a different story from the one we usually hear about church decline.
What we get wrong…
Often when we discuss the decline of religion in America the discourse is constructed as a series of faults and failures usually laid at the door of someone. Unsurprisingly that failure is usually strongly correlated with someone or something with whom we disagree. Here are some common tropes in the discourse –
Why did American religion decline?
- Apostacy – insert preferred cultural grievance here
- The Enlightenment – insert preferred cultural or social theoretical grievance here
- Measurement – insert methodological or theoretical grievance here
- Secularization theory – doesn’t match timeline of change and is undermined by data on decline – insert preferred cultural grievance here
This fault finding and blame assigning approach to the reality of our decline is a mistake.
- First it is a surrender to the “culture war” project of a previous generation and all it produces is casualties. Making it about orthodoxy, or post-modernity, or insert your preferred grievance misses the key actor in the narrative which is the lived experience of people who are, used to be, or never have been in the pews so to speak.
- Second, fault finding and blame assigning are a perversion of Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” in that there is no true “remembering” when we are blaming or fault finding as the technique by its nature focuses us on our perceived adversary. As an alternative we ought to be interrogating ourselves, our institutions, and those who no longer or never have found spiritual sustenance in the church as it is, used to be, or is imaged by those of us in it to be.
- Third, and most importantly these tropes and approaches are always backward looking and therefore bound to historical narratives that are always incomplete.This backward looking method has us always looking to the past for answers which sadly further disconnects us from the present and denies us the future. It is as if we are walking backwards towards our goal which makes it very hard to navigate.
Data we get wrong..…
I have yet to have a discussion about religion and it’s decline that is not marred by the errors I listed above. Particularly the blame game played on all sides that I believe distracts us from the real trend that matters. It is my belief that the trend that is most revealing about religion and it’s decline is right in front of our eyes and yet seldom seen.
For me the most salient data point is “strong adherence” to religion and not any of the other multitude of reasons so often cited.
Often in our discourse about the decline of Christianity “the good old days” are lodged in a real or at times very mythological view of the 1950’s corporate church model. I am not going to spend a lot of time on the model in this essay I am merely going to suggest that this view is inaccurate. The reality of church decline is rather more complex than something that happened after the 1950’s.
Methodologically some of you will want to quibble over the definition of “strong adherence.” I think the definition is less relevant than the expressed reality that the faith, theological, and spiritual center of the church represented by “strong adherence” has been in decline since the birth cohort of the 1880’s. How we define the contours of “strong adherence” will depend on the various forms, norms, and practices of our unique and contextual realities. In aggregate the data tells us that “strong adherence” as defined by the respondents for themselves has been in decline without regard to ecclesial forms, denominational identities, or local practices since the late 1800’s. To be clear what I am saying is that people expressed clearly that they were no longer strong adherents to religion and that ought to be enough for us methodologically speaking.
Secondly I have highlighted two points on the graph with arrows which are addressed below:
- In my view it is critical to note the inflection point where strong religious adherence dropped below 50% was in the birth cohort of 1911 – 1920 often called the G.I Generation or the “Greatest Generation.” Now let’s pause here for a moment. The data shows that fully half of the GI generation had something less than strong adherence to religion. So why are/were they in church? Data shows that church membership and participation was still “strong” in the 1950’s and into the 1960’s in a multi- generational way. Yet for this pivotal generation and following generations it was not about a strong adherence to the faith? I would submit that membership and participation are lagging indicators of what was a critical “climate change” in religion with the hollowing out of “strong adherence.” In other words, folks continued to attend church, temple, mosque, or whatever for reasons other than a strong religions experience.
- The data also shows that for the birth cohort of the 1950’s to the mid 1960’s often called the “Baby Boom” generation those who claim strong adherence are outliers at less than 35% of their generation. It is the baby boom generation that truly began to unwind religious participation. Where their parents continued to participate Boomers largely departed religion which has knock on effects of course for their children. It is fair to note here that whatever bound their parents and elders to religion in a previous generation was also unwound for them further cementing the decline.
For the purposes of this essay my thesis is that it is the hollowing out of strong adherence that is the key cause of religious decline. The loss of strong adherence strikes at the core of religion as it deprives us of practitioners, sages, mystics, and wise ones who form the true backbone of any religion. It is the lived experience over time bound by strong adherence that makes sensible religion to new generations. It is not programs, or structures, or doctrines, or right/wrong belief it is people who show us the way.
As but one example for a long time the secularization theory of decline could not explain why such a large number of people still believed in God, still practiced prayer, and still held mystical beliefs. The larger population largely matched the religiously active population they just weren’t in houses of worship or faith communities. For this data see General Social Survey Data from 1975 onward. It is my contention that it is the lack of strong adherents to faith that marks the key element missing in the alchemy of church/mosque/synagogue/temple which lies at the heart of religious community. It is the lack of mentors and deeply faithful persons in our communities of faith that leads to spiritual seeking by those looking for something.
To be clear in my view what is lacking is faithful practitioners of faith in religious community who can mentor and model a life of faith for those seeking such a life. And they are seeking to be sure that much is clear.
Let me make one further point. In my view church numbers are irrelevant in the discussion of why religion is dying. Allow me to direct you to Johnson County Kansas home of Church of the Resurrection often touted as one of the true UMC mega churches explicitly focused on reaching the unchurched. Below find the chart noting that in 2010 the largest faith group in Johnson County was the unchurched:
The population of Johnson county grew as follows:
1990 – 355,054
2000 – 451,086. (grew 27% from 1990)
2010 – 544,179. (grew 20.6% from 2000)
From 2000 to 2010 the rate of membership in the country grew from 50.8% of the population in 2000 to 54.5% in 2010 of the population. This woud seem to support the narrative that COR is doing the job it sets out to do. However in order to conclude that you’d have to ignore the rest of the data which shows that 18 other religious groups in Johnson County grew by double digit % AND that 7 of those grew at rates faster than the UMC of which COR Is a part. In fact the data seems to point to more already practicing people of faith moving into the community than a true conversion of the unchurched.
Note here I am not “picking on” COR! They do terrific work and I think it is hard to find something bad to say about them. But the reality is that in their context it is hard to make a case with present data that they have moved the needle on reaching the truly unclaimed.. The data seems to illustrate they are rather riding a tide of rising population combined with rising population of those already faithful. This does NOT mean they are misleading anyone about who they think they are and what they are doing. What it means is that the larger trends remain largely untouched even in a place as hospitable to religion as Kansas.
My point with this example is to take us out of the parochial concerns about church membership back to the larger issue of religious adherence which I believe is where the “action” is in terms of building the mission of Christ.
In my view the future of religion lies in forging a new strong adherence in the context of our times that speaks and lives into the lives of those following us. In this sense I find myself very much in agreement with Phyllis Tickle that it is time to clean out the attic and return to lives lived.. But that is another essay..
“Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson