Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The coming evangelical collapse?

An op-ed piece was published in the Christian Science Monitor entitled: "The Coming Evangelical Collapse" by Michael Spencer. I encourage you to check out his website, Internetmonk.com, for he has a lot of good things to say about the Christian life.

With his prediction of the collapse of the Evangelical church, however, he seems off the mark. Because the semester just ended, I have some time to go into depth on this issue. Having said that, articles like that of by Mr. Spencer attract a lot of attention quickly, so my writing about it two months after publication is an eternity in the blogosphere. Nonetheless, here goes.

Spencer's prediction is that "We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West."

Well, predictions can be difficult, so let's look at the recent past.

As you can see, the percentage of Evangelicals in the country has increased since 1970, the percentage Mainline Protestants has dropped considerable, and the percentage Catholics has remained about the same.

Now, there are a lot of things would could say (and have been said) about these data, but at just a glance, it's pretty clear that there's no evidence of the percentage of Evangelicals dropping precipitously--and the data go right up to 2008.

This has two implications.

1) Since these data give the percentage of American adults who attend an evangelical church, and the American population has been growing, that means the actual number of American Evangelicals has increased substantially in the past 35 years.

2) Given no evidence of a collapse, Mr. Spencer would seem to have the burden of explaining why this sudden change will happen.

For me, this finishes the discussion. Unless there's some sort of magic ball involved that can predict things that have yet started happening, the discussion is over.

Technical stuff: The data come from the General Social Survey using the Reltrad classification scheme which identifies evangelicals as people who go to evangelical churches (as opposed to people who describe themselves with that label). I smoothed out the lines using loess smoothing in STATA.


K T Cat said...

Just from a first glance, I would submit that this is pretty damning evidence that the theological flexiblity in mainlain protestant churches has yielded nothing but failure. The two religions who have hewed fast to traditional convictions have been stable while the ones flapping in the cultural breeze have fallen.

Or am I simplifying things too much?

One nit to pick: the labeling on your chart is incorrect. If the y-axis is %, then the numbers should read 15, 20, 25, 30 and not .15, .2, .25, .3.

As a Catholic, I'm more than willing to forgive you for this, but only if you go to confession.


Brad Wright said...

Okay, I fixed the y-axis.

As far as Catholics, it turns out that the Catholic church has lost a lot of native-born Catholics, but they have been replaced in number by immigrants from Latin America. So, the steady line hides a lot of change....

eclecticchristian.com said...

Hi Brad,

Nice graph. It looked exactly like what I expected. You are exactly right about why the Catholic numbers why remaining constant.

The decline in Mainline Christians is not primarily because people have been switching out, but because people have been dying off. I believe the Pew data shows that Evangelical Christians in the U.S. are facing that same generational horizon. For example the largest Evangelical group, the Southern Baptists are extremely skewed towards the older ages.

I saw one older study (referenced in a book by Hadaway), that showed that 85% of mainline decline could be attributed to death and birth rates. This same type of generational horizon will really reduce the Evangelical numbers over the next forty years, some of which is starting to become evident through the slowing of evangelical growth, and will become more evident over the next 10 years.

Mike Bell

P.S. Could I use your graph at some point in time. Or could you send me your raw data.