Saturday, March 14, 2009

Is the Church Shrinking Nationwide?

According to the cover story in the March 9 issue of USA TODAY "almost all denominations are losing ground." In fact the percentage of those who claim to be "some type of Christian" has shrunk by 11% in the span of one generation. As the author Cathy Lynn Grossman wrote: "When it comes to religion, the USA is a land of freelancers."

The dramatic changes were detailed in the new American Identification Survey (ARIS). It has found that even despite the fact that growth and immigration have added nearly 50 million adults to the U.S. population, "almost all religious denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS survey in 1990."

What is of particular interest is the growth of what the survey calls "nones," those who claim no religion. It has grown from 8.2 % in 1990 to 15% in 2008! Furthermore, the survey discovered that the "nones" where the only group to have grown in every state of the Union.

Much of the decline in the percentage of Christians in America comes from the liberal mainline denominations, which is of little surprise. As the survey reports:

Ninety percent of the decline comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, largely from the mainline denominations, including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians/Anglicans, and the United Church of Christ. These groups, whose proportion of the American population shrank from 18.7 percent in 1990 to 17.2 percent in 2001, all experienced sharp numerical declines this decade and now constitute just 12.9 percent.

A majority of the growth within the ranks of those identifying with the Christian faith came from the ranks of the generic evangelicals. Again the survey reveals that:

Most of the growth in the Christian population occurred among those who would identify only as "Christian," "Evangelical/Born Again," or "non-denominational Christian." The last of these, associated with the growth of megachurches, has increased from less than 200,000 in 1990 to 2.5 million in 2001 to over 8 million today. These groups grew from 5 percent of the population in 1990 to 8.5 percent in 2001 to 11.8 percent in 2008. Significantly, 38.6 percent of mainline Protestants now also identify themselves as evangelical or born again.

"It looks like the two-party system of American Protestantism--mainline versus evangelical--is collapsing," said Mark Silk, director of the Public Values Program. "A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United State s."

Other findings of interest would include the following:
-Mormons have increased in numbers enough to hold their own proportionally, at 1.4 percent of the population.
-The Muslim proportion of the population continues to grow, from .3 percent in 1990 to .5 percent in 2001 to .6 percent in 2008.
-The number of adherents of Eastern Religions, which more than doubled in the 1990s, has declined slightly.
-Only1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. But based on stated beliefs, 12 percent are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unsure), while 12 percent more are deistic (believe in a higher power but not a personal God). The number of outright atheists has nearly doubled since 2001, from 900 thousand to 1.6 million. Twenty-seven percent of Americans do not expect a religious funeral at their death.
-Adherents of New Religious movements, inc luding Wiccans and self-described pagans, have grown faster this decade than in the 1990s.

There is no doubt that we live in the "last days." As Paul writes: "The Spirit says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons...." (1 Timothy 4:1).

The findings of this survey have continued and new implications for those of us within one of the "mainline denominations" that has been shrinking, namely the LCMS. It seems likely that the pattern of shrinkage will continue for some years to come, despite the efforts of denominational beaurocrats to stem the inevitable tide of loss. The era of the big denominational structure is coming to a close. As this growing form of "generic" Christianity gains momentum, catechesis will become even more critical in the future as people continue to blur the lines between what is orthodox and what is heresy and falsehood.

Evangelism is also going to change as we encounter a growing population of people raised with no faith. The usual touch points we counted on before are disappearing. This generation is coming in ignorant of the most basic aspects of general biblical knowledge. In some ways it is almost like going to a third world country and starting from scratch. One major difference, though, is that in some of these pagan countries there is still a sense of spirituality and an interest in things spiritual. This new generation is decidedly irreligious. That's going to be a new and tremendous challenge.

Finally, the "decieving spirits" will continue to experience a growth in their cultish religions. While the interest in things from the Far East is declining, facination in things false and demonic will not. Much of what Paul encountered in his missionary journeys may well become more of a norm for us in this country. The devil, it would appear, is, as predicted, becoming more bold as the days near to the End.


Pr D Bestul said...

A note of appreciation for your sound confessional insights from a "left coaster" [California] who grew up in and first served in the Northwoods of Minnesota. Please keep up the good work.

Pr. D. Bestul
Cupertino, CA

Don Engebretson said...

Thank you, Pr. Bestul for your kind comments. I will indeed endeavor, by God's grace, to "keep up the good work."