Friday, February 4, 2011

Evangelicalism is Growing: Liberal Protestantism is Dying

We have been hearing for several years now that Evangelicalism and/or Christianity in general is declining in the US. What we know is that liberals desperately wish this to be true; until now the actual picture has been unclear. A new study from Baylor Religion Survey shows that Evangelicalism is hardly falling apart. Bryon Johnson writing in First Things says in his article entitled "Good News about Evangelicalism":
The evangelical movement is undergoing a sea change, to be sure, but it is not the sort most observers imagine. For starters, evangelicals have not lost members. This was confirmed by the Baylor Religion Survey, an in-depth study of American religious beliefs and practices using data collected by the Gallup Organization. Instead of relying on questions about religious preference alone, as previous studies have done, the survey identified respondents by religious family, denomination, and local congregation.
One of the ways researchers misinterpret the data is to assume that those who leave churches leave for a non-religious lifestyle. Actually, however, many leave liberal churches in search of a more relevant faith (usually in an Evangelical church) and many others move into nondenominational churches that are not well-described in survey instruments.
Nondenominational churches, almost exclusively evangelical, now represent the second-largest group of Protestant churches in America, and the fastest growing section of the American religious market. Many denominational churches, especially newer ones, avoid advertising or communication strategies that feature their denominational affiliation. Consider Saddleback Church. All of its members know that their pastor is Rick Warren, but not all know that their congregation is Southern Baptist. Typical is Christ Community Church, near Nashville, Tennessee—a member of the Presbyterian Church of America that does not highlight this fact in Sunday services or sermons.

This trend has affected popular statistics and has also served to exaggerate the loss of religious faith and evangelical influence in America. Most previous research missed a new phenomenon: that members of nondenominational churches often identify themselves on surveys as unaffiliated or even as having “no religion.” Because traditional surveys do not provide categories that adequately describe those who attend nondenominational congregations, their members often check “unaffiliated” in typical surveys and questionnaires.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Forum, 44 percent of Americans have switched their religious or denominational affiliation. Much of the media coverage suggested that something much different had happened: that a significant portion of the American population had left the faith of their youth. But that is not what the research actually discovered. These are two vastly different stories, with profoundly different implications for American religion in general and evangelicalism in particular. Switching churches or denominations should not be interpreted as a proxy for losing one’s faith.
Between 1960 and 2000 membership in "mainline" (liberal) denominations has declined by 49%. During the same period, membership in Evangelical (the new mainline) denominations has increased by 156%. Clearly, liberalism empties churches and Evangelicalism is where people who want to be serious Christians go.

Look for these trends to continue until the Roman Catholic Church and Evangelicalism constitute the bulk of Christianity in the US and Liberal Protestantism has died out. The same trends are at work in Canada and in the UK as well.

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