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Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Myth of Evangelical Decline

Much recent research into American religious trends has concluded that evangelical Protestantism is in the decline, perhaps not as much as is mainline Protestantism, but in decline nonetheless. Leading evangelicals have greeted this news with dismay and calls for the need to evangelize the unchurched and those who have fallen away from the faith. By contrast many secularists and liberal Christians have reacted to the news with undisguised glee, the latter because they see evangelicalism as distorting the faith proclaimed by Jesus, and secularists because they view religious belief in general, but evangelicalism in particular, as a sign of societal ignorance (although they often tolerate liberal Christians because at least they are "right" on the issues).

The research is wrong, however.  Evangelicalism is not dying, nor is it fading away. The reason why many researchers have concluded that evangelicalism is in decline is because of how and what questions surveys ask or don't ask. What researchers at Baylor University have found is that many evangelicals who attend nondenominational churches often identify themselves on surveys as "unaffiliated" or (amazingly) "having no religion." As Byron Johnson, a professor of social science at Baylor University notes,
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" (Johnson, "The Good News About Evangelicalism," First Things, February 2011: 12). 
However, when surveys ask respondents to not only identify themselves by their religious family (e.g., Baptist) and denomination (e.g., Southern Baptist) but also by their local congregation (as the Baylor Religious Surveys do), the supposed evangelical decline disappears (the same cannot be said about mainline Protestantism, however). In particular, researchers at Baylor found that:
  1. American churchgoers feel more connected to local congregations than to denominations (e.g., United Church of Christ) and religious families (The Reformed Tradition)
  2. Currently 10.8% of Americans are unaffiliated, which is much less than the 14-16% reported in a lot of other surveys 
  3. Many of those who identify themselves as unaffiliated are affiliated with congregations and of those who are, most attend evangelical churches 
  4. America is more evangelical than previously reported in other surveys. "Fully one-third of Americans... affiliate with an evangelical Protestant congregation. Indeed, evangelicals remain the numerically dominant religious tradition in the United States" (Johnson, First Things
Why evangelicalism remains such a potent force in America is a topic I'll take up in a future post ("Why Evangelical Churches Thrive"). For now it is suffice to say that reports of evangelicalism's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

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