But is this true? Is it finally coming to an end? Is the age of the cross fading away into the darkness? Communists, militant atheists and neopagans would have us believe so. They shout it on the airwaves and the Internet every chance they get. But is it true?
Figures don't lie, but liars sure do figure. Yes! The numbers are true. The graphs are accurate, but the graphs they show us only tell a fraction of the story - the skin of the truth, stuffed with a great big lie!
I have stated for years now, and continue to maintain, that the fall of Western Christianity is really nothing more than the collapse of Protestantism. And that Western Catholicism will continue to collapse itself, only insofar as it has embraced Protestant forms of theology, ideology and worship styles.
The core of this demographic implosion of Christianity is limited to the West (Europe, North America and Oceania). We do not see this kind of decline in South America, Africa and Asia. While Christianity remains relatively stable in South America, it is experiencing explosive growth in Africa and Asia.
The real story is here, within the core of Protestantism. This is what's really going on...
|Source: Association of Religious Data Archives|
Take a close look at the membership arcs of these U.S. denominations. These arcs, starting in 1925 reach the climax for most mainline Protestant denominations around 1975. There are a couple exceptions of course, but this is the case for most. In 1975 we see a clear shift, for most mainline Protestant denominations. The arc turns downward rather sharply. Why? I'll explore the reasons for this later. But first I want to show you another graph.
|Source: Association of Religious Data Archives|
Take a good look at this one, because this is where the hard numbers for mainline Protestantism are punishing. The red line represents the average membership of all mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. The black line shows how the total U.S. population continues to rise, while the red line of mainline Protestant membership begins to fall in 1975. Even if the red membership line had not fallen, but continued to rise at the same rate, it would still register as a negative compared to the rapid growth of the black line for U.S. population in total. The percentage of Americans, who are members of these Protestant denominations, would have gone down, per capita, even if their membership arc had not begun to fall in 1975. So what does this mean? It means that as the U.S. population grows, not only are mainline Protestant churches failing to attract new members, but their old members are growing old and failing to reproduce at a rate that will maintain their denominations. Not only are these denominations falling behind in their relative percentage of U.S. population, but their losing actual members too. In short, their churches are shrinking.
What happened? Where did all the mainline Protestants go? This is where it gets interesting. Most of their membership arcs flatten and decline starting in 1975. What happened in and around 1975 to cause this? It was in the early 1970s that mainline Protestant churches began to take on a noticeably liberal trend. Many of the traditions and beliefs which had sustained them over the centuries were abandoned, and these denominations gave way to innovations in worship, doctrine and morality. The result? Implosion! A massive exodus took place from the early 1970s through the early 2000s, as Protestants left the denominations of their forefathers. In Europe, there really was nowhere else to go, and so they just lost their faith in droves, becoming non-religious entirely. While in North America, where it is easy to start new churches and religious organisations, a new phenomenon occurred. The rise of Evangelicalism, and the Evangelical megachurches, provided a place of refuge for many of the mainline Protestants fleeing their liberal denominations. The rise of Evangelical Christianity, and the Evangelical megachurches, is NOT a new religious movement. It didn't just appear out of thin air. These people who populate their pews are NOT new Christians. They are old Christians; the sons and daughters of mainline Protestant churches. They left the denominations of their forefathers, and just hopped on over to the thriving Evangelical megachurch down the street, where they met up with the children of other mainline Protestants from different denominations.
Sadly, however, not all of the children of mainline Protestants made the journey to the Evangelical mega-centre. A good portion of them were lost along the way, and became part of the unaffiliated "nones" that appears to be growing so rapidly. The Evangelical churches, and megachurches, are not a new religious movement. They are rather a consolidation of Protestants from all different denominations, disenchanted with the liberal trends of their family denominations, yet not wanting to abandon the Protestant Christian faith of their forefathers. Evangelicalism offers them a simple form of Protestantism. It's a watered-down version of it. Generally speaking, for now anyway, their leaders adhere to traditional Reformation theology and classical Protestant morality. Some border on puritanism. Others are more permissive. These Evangelical churches represent the last-stop on a Protestant trend toward complete secularism and a total loss of Christian faith. They represent the last "safety net" for Protestantism, catching what fish they can before the majority swim away into the deep. In this sense, Evangelicalism represents the last breath of Protestantism, it's final apex, and complete consolidation into one disjointed religious demographic, before Protestantism fades into the pages of history. Evangelicalism is Protestantism's last hope.
It's very difficult to acquire records for Evangelical trends. This is because Evangelicals are not organised into neat and tidy denominations that do regular censuses. In fact, some Evangelical churches don't even keep membership records. For them, regular attendance is considered "membership", and their census consists of a head count. Speaking as one who has worked in a Catholic RCIA program, I can attest that baptismal records are difficult to attain from these organisations, if not impossible. Sometimes the best we can hope for is a written statement of faith from the Church, combined with a testimony that the RCIA candidate was baptised. It's a real challenge sometimes. But this is what we can expect from a "safety net". Religiously speaking, it resembles more of a spiritual refugee camp than an actual church denomination. Evangelical churches are busy preventing Protestants from falling away completely, and the exodus is massive. The ridiculous size of some of their churches is testimony to that. They barely have time to keep records. So we don't have any census easy charts to find either.
The best I can tell you is this. The membership arc for most of these Evangelical churches appears to be about 50 years maximum, marked by a rapid incline, followed by a short plateau, and then a gradual decline. Some of the earliest Evangelical megachurches have been in decline for some time. One good example is Robert Schuller Ministries, which rocketed to stardom in the 1950s, only to sell its massive Crystal Cathedral in California to avoid bankruptcy after the turn of the century. I grew up in Southern California. During the 1980s, the Crystal Cathedral was considered one of the most successful and stable Evangelical churches in the region. In spite of this, it was recently sold to the Catholic Diocese of Orange, and is now known as Christ's Cathedral. We are just now beginning to watch this same 50 year membership arc play out in other Evangelical churches, depending on when they rose to stardom. Evangelicalism, as we know it, will implode. This isn't just my opinion, many others have written of it too: here, here and here. It is in the process of imploding right now, but that is difficult to see, because as one megachurch sells out to avoid bankruptcy, another one is formed and begins its own 50 year arc. Rest assured however, this trend cannot continue indefinitely. As more Protestants gradually move into the unaffiliated camp, these 50 year arcs will decrease, into 30 year arcs, 20 year arcs, and so on. I believe we may already be in that process.
What's really going on in the West? First of all, unlike the mainline Protestant churches, the U.S. Catholic Church is growing. It's not a rapid growth mind you, like the 50 year arc of Evangelical mega-churches, but rather a slow and steady growth.
The following chart below illustrates all growth in the U.S. Catholic Church since the Revolution in 1776...
|Source: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate|
Now, there is one last graph I want to show you from the same source. As I said above, Protestants are leaving their mainline denominations in droves. However, I also said that Catholicism is linked to this exodus only insofar as it has embraced Protestant forms of theology, ideology and worship styles. In the United States and Europe, this has been extensive. In a misguided effort to attract more Protestants into the Catholic Church, many Catholic parishes, and even dioceses, have embraced a watered-down type of "Protestantised" Catholicism. This has led to an exodus from the U.S. Catholic Church as well...
|Source: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate|
Let's take a close look at this. We are constantly reminded by the media that 1 in 3 American Catholics, who are raised in the Church, eventually leave the Church. This appears to be true. One in three; think about that. I assert this is the direct result of Catholic parishes having embraced Protestant forms of theology, ideology and worship styles. When you strip the faith of its historically Catholic ethos, and make it appear more Protestant in character, you shouldn't be surprised when some of your youngest members leave the faith and become Protestant themselves. That is, if they're lucky! A good number of them go on to lose all faith in Christianity entirely, and become unaffiliated "nones". Of those one in three, we can only pray that they become Evangelicals. At least then their faith is not lost completely.
Yet there is something else this graph reveals, which the media almost never tells us directly. Nearly 2 out of 3 (59%) American Presbyterians leave their churches. That is quickly followed by U.S. Anglicans/Episcopalians (56%) and Methodists (54%). What is even more interesting is the "nones", meaning people who were raised with no religion. These people are turning to some kind of religion at a rate of 53%. Lutherans and Baptists also leave their churches at a higher rate than Catholics do. Again, this helps explain the Protestant membership arcs above. Their churches are smaller, in comparison to the Catholic Church, so these higher membership drop rates hit their overall membership rates harder. Meanwhile the 32% loss rate among Catholics doesn't seem to be enough to curb the overall growth of the U.S. Catholic Church. It's overall numbers continue to rise, in spite of losing 1 out of every 3 Catholics raised in the faith. This can be attributed partly to population growth (Catholics often have larger families), Catholic immigration, and conversion rates TO the Catholic Church. Where do you think some of those mainline Protestants and "nones" are going? They're not all heading toward Evangelicalism! Some of them are becoming Catholic.
Lastly, I want to close this essay with a personal observation. Protestant churches that adhere to traditional teaching, and traditional worship styles, tend to suffer the least loss. A small few are even growing. Evangelical churches that adhere to traditional teaching, in spite of their contemporary worship styles, tend to experience the most growth. Even if it is usually on a short 50 year arc, it is growth nonetheless. Catholic parishes that return to their traditional style of teaching and worship, tend to experience the most consistent growth and membership retention rate. Because of this, I have to say that the way to save Catholicism from the collapse of Western Christianity is simply to become more Catholic. Embrace traditional liturgy, devotions and orthodoxy. The more we do this, the more the U.S. Catholic Church will be preserved and flourish, while the rest of Western Christianity collapses around her.
Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books, and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'FullyChristian.Com -- The random musings of a Catholic in the Ozarks.'
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