Why Churches Increase Or Decline

Christopher Brittain


Last year, Ross Douthat caused a stir among mainline American church circles with his provocative article, “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” Douthat suggests that the more liberal denominations seek to be “self-consciously progressive” – accepting same-sex relationships, the legitimacy of other religions and so on – the faster they experience numerical decline. He argues that the leaders of liberal churches in the United States “often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”

Douthat’s suggestion is hardly novel. Dean Kelley offered a similar view in his 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. Since then, the argument that mainline church decline is related to liberal tolerance and doctrinal fuzziness has remained prominent among American theologians and journalists, as evidenced by Mary Eberstadt’s recent column in Time magazine, which declared that “orthodoxy is winning” in the cultural “war” over the identity of Christianity.

And yet there are a number of reasons for remaining dubious about such interpretations of trends in church-going in the United States, as well as in other countries in the “Global North.” Let me here mention just two:

Recent studies suggest that church-going among conservative evangelical congregations in the United States is now also in decline. Moreover, it is significant that Douthat and Kelley largely focused on church-going among Americans (which continues to report monthly church attendance of around 25% of the population), whereas elsewhere in the world, church-going is significantly lower. In Canada, less than 21% of the population attend church weekly; in Australia, the figure is only 20% of the population going to church once a month (and 10% weekly); in Britain, only 16% report going once a month. The steady decline in church attendance that these figures illustrate can no longer be presented as unique to “liberal” churches.

It is misleading to suggest that all conservative churches grow simply by virtue of being “conservative.” The supposedly unified “conservative” camp incorporates a range of church expressions that includes Protestant evangelicals, charismatic and traditional Roman Catholics, and Pentecostals. In Britain and North America, only Roman Catholics are experiencing any significant numerical growth, which has more to do with immigration patterns (Polish in Britain, and Hispanic in the United States) rather than any doctrinal or liturgical ethos. More to the point, growth of Christianity is really only occurring in the countries of the so-called “Global South.” In those regions, this trend is largely restricted to the Pentecostal churches (particularly in the mode of neo-Pentecostalism).

These developments not only call into question the explanation for the decline of liberal churches offered by Kelley, Douthat and Eberstadt; it also implies that the challenges confronting both liberal and conservative churches in Europe and the United States may be more alike than is often assumed. Douthat’s article opens up a crack of acknowledgement in this direction, when he notes that the most successful churches in the United States are “theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.” Similarly, Stanley Hauerwas – no friend of liberal Christianity – has accused conservative American Protestants of being unable to distinguish between their faith in God and loyalty to their country. Intriguingly, his criticism of conservative evangelicals sounds remarkably similar to Douthat’s accusation against liberal Christianity: “the churches to which they go do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their lives.”

Both of these concerns about the motivations influencing church-going among Christians ought to shift the focus of discussion from the decline of liberal Christianity, and toward those churches which are experiencing significant growth: neo-Pentecostal movements in the Global South. Although these movements have some roots in the Pentecostalism that emerged in California in the early-twentieth century, as well as in the charismatic revivals of the 1960s and 1970s, the neo-Pentecostal churches are notable for their emphasis on a single charismatic leader and the witnessing of miraculous signs, and for teaching a strong version of the “prosperity Gospel” (the belief that financial success is the result of divine blessing).

Sociologists studying the movement – preeminently David Martin – suggest that the popularity of these churches is related to the way in which Christianity is linked to access to power. People are drawn to the neo-Pentecostal movement because they believe that their participation will result in some tangible results: financial success, health, successful marriage and so on. It is perhaps thus unsurprising that, generally speaking, individuals in less developed countries, particularly those making the transition from rural areas to large urban centers, are most likely to attend neo-Pentecostal churches.

If this portrait is accurate, then it is significant that the relationship between church membership in these Christian churches and the culture surrounding them is not so different from those which Douthat criticizes in liberal churches, and which Hauerwas criticizes in conservative evangelical churches. In all three situations, the most significant concern is that such expressions of Christianity fail to distinguish their Christian identities from their cultural and economic environment. The problem, it would seem, goes much deeper than the failings of liberal Christianity – or, for that matter, any other particular expression of Christian church.

In this light, the recent YouGov survey conducted by Linda Woodhead in the UK is of most interesting. The survey suggested that 50% of British Anglicans seldom attend church, but that they continue to affirm the beliefs of their denomination. In an article for the Church Times, Woodhead argues that such “nominal” Anglicans are actually a sign of the church’s strength, and should be viewed as the “most real Anglicans.” While this contribution offers a helpful corrective on the tendency to equate a church’s vitality or relevance to counting the number of people at a Sunday service, it is rather difficult to agree that non-attendance can be considered an asset for any church. Presumably, those Anglicans who no longer attend services did so at some point in their lives – at least, for a long enough period to acquire a sufficient sense of the tradition with which they continue to associate. With fewer people now attending long enough to develop such an identity, however, there will be a steady decline in even the number of these “nominal” Anglicans. The promising demographic that Woodhead identifies is thus an endangered species.

What is more significant about the results of Woodhead’s survey is the fact that this “nominal” demographic – along with another 12% of the “Church-going mainstream” – report that, after consulting with religious authorities and traditions, they “make up their own minds” on matters of belief and morality. Here we get to the heart of the challenge confronting not only liberal Christianity, but also evangelicals and neo-Pentecostals: modern individualism. Increasingly, Christians (liberal or otherwise) believe that they have the right to decide for themselves what they will or won’t believe, and whether they will or won’t show up for a worship service. For many, identifying one’s identity as “Christian” does not necessarily commit oneself to a particular belief or practice.

Liberal Christians are generally singled out for reducing their religious beliefs to their own individual preferences. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that this pattern is far from exclusive to liberals. Among scholars studying the growth of Pentecostalism, a key focus of debate is the extent to which the movement is a product of the development of modernity. According to Rijk van Dijk, the popularity of Pentecostalism lies in its ability to help individuals restructure their identity as they abandon former traditions and social ties and leave their former lives behind. In this view, contemporary Pentecostalism is the quintessential religion of mobility and progress. David Martin offers a similar interpretation, arguing that Pentecostalism “enable[s] marginal people to divest themselves of backward and dissolute stereotypes and leap over the local national environment and embrace global modernity.” In short, Pentecostalism is understood as promoting individualism and the reinvention of past traditions on the basis of individual needs.

This emerging scholarly consensus on this movement is not unlike Max Weber’s interpretation of the rise of Calvinism, which, with its “Protestant Work Ethic,” fueled the Industrial Revolution. Leaving criticisms of Weber’s thesis aside, if there is anything to the linkage that scholars are identifying between Pentecostalism and global modernity, then the concerns about the weaknesses of liberal Christianity have come full circle. For, according to Weber’s thesis, the prosperity enjoyed by the Protestant industrialists spurred on the rationalism, individualism and secularism that have contributed to the decline of Christianity’s cultural influence in the Global North. This is not to suggest that Africa and Latin America are destined to experience the same secularizing trends as the nations of the Global North; but it does raise the possibility that these developments are gradually producing the same kind of individual subjectivity among Christians, with all of its benefits and limitations.

Simply put, if the Christian churches that are currently experiencing significant growth are at the same time helping to spread modern individualism (as well as increasing social mobility and the undermining of local cultures and traditions), then we have every reason to anticipate that the issues Douthat and Hauerwas criticize in American churches will become increasingly prominent in many churches in other parts of the globe – whether they are “liberal” or “conservative.” Like so-called “liberal Christians,” Pentecostals are increasingly learning to adapt Christianity to their own beliefs and needs.

As it becomes clear that the fates of liberal and conservative Christianities may not be as distinct as is commonly assumed, the time has arrived for a re-evaluation of liberal Christianity. For conservatives, the task is to stop interpreting the demise of liberal congregations as a victory for evangelical Christianity, and to explore what might be learned from the fact that liberal Christianity’s roots lie in the attempt to adapt and respond to cultural diversity and modern individualism. For liberals, the challenge involves far more than finding the courage to address the significant decline in church membership. Their task begins only after acknowledging that liberal Christianity has a real problem transmitting itself to subsequent generations. As Steve Bruce has observed, liberal churches generally appeal more to disaffected conservatives than they do to people with no previous background in Christianity. This fact suggests that liberals need to give greater attention to why the doctrines and traditions of Christianity should matter to someone not already familiar with them.

These considerations suggest that, contrary to Mary Eberstadt’s enthusiastic declaration of victory for conservative churches, Christians of all persuasions have good reason to distance themselves from the tendency to define churches by the terms of the “culture wars.” Enormous theological, ecclesiological and missiological energy is being directed towards “winning” the battle over how to interpret same-sex relationships; meanwhile, both liberal and conservative churches are in sharp decline in the Global North. Both sides tend to explain the failures of their opponent as resulting from their problematic attitude towards homosexuality.

It is now clear, however, that such diagnoses are well off the mark. Articulating the “correct” position on homosexuality will not turn the tide of church decline. Should conservatives and liberals begin to admit this reality, perhaps then the ecumenical task of analysing the decline of Christianity in the Global North can finally truly begin.

Christopher Craig Brittain is Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. He is the author of Religion at Ground Zero: Theological Responses to Times of Crisis.

            TERRY HOOPS :
10 May 2013 1:17:15am

        Among the missing ingredients to this insightful article are the socio-political factors underlying the constituencies of religious bodies. The article assumes that people identify with religious communities due to individual theological commitments… beliefs, to put it simply. But a different argument could be made, and has been made about the rise of Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in Latin America, and that is that people join churches because they provide alternative kinds of communities and collectivities due to the cultural/symbolic/political resources they offer. Membership in a church body may be related, in fact, to association rather than belief. Decline among churches may in fact be related to the decline in the forms of cultural capital that membership offers people who are on the market for a religious community and experience. One of the things that strikes me about American society is how much public culture and community has been wrapped up in the church community, and I speculate that the continued importance of religion in American life is related to the fact that there are still few other forms of community and public culture (such as unions, neighborhood associations, political parties, etc.) that individuals can turn to address their needs to be agents (in all its complexity) within the socio-political environment.

            GRIZZLE :
09 May 2013 2:50:13pm

I think we are looking for the wrong thing. 

The truth is that many conservative churches are not really Biblical . The issue is not so much belief but practice. Most conservatives believe that Jesus said go and sell all you have, give it to the poor and follow me – but not apply it to themselves.

The reality is that churches which are making an impact:

Try to live out the commands of Jesus

Pray, read the Bible and interpret it through the life of Jesus

Take the new commandment seriously (love one another – including non-Christians)

Do not exclude people (through rules or socialisation) who do not match their expectations

Are outwardly focussed finding ways to serve and engage in the community outside the church

Have developed a sense of community where people can belong

The decline of the conservatives is in practice rather than belief. The practice (and belief) in most conservative churches is “preach it and they will come”. Jesus said something somewhat opposite “Go into all the world…”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.