A recent Christian Century article written by my colleague David Roozen at Hartford Seminary does a nice job of highlighting congregational growth and decline over the last several decades. He points out, contrary to popular belief in mainline Protestant circles, that nearly all faith traditions are experiencing decline today. From 2000 to 2010, conservative Protestants and Catholics also experienced a loss in membership. The only groups to continue growth trends over the past several decades are Pentecostal and holiness traditions.
What this tells us, as Roozen asserts, is that there are external factors—independent of churches—that are impacting this decline. While we’ve known about these external forces for some time, and have even used them to discuss some of the reasons why our own membership in the UCC has declined, I do find it comforting to know that this isn’t just a UCC or mainline Protestant trend.
Roozen discusses the two main phenomena that are most commonly touted as reasons for decline—secularization and the decreasing religious participation of younger generations. But what is surprising is that the largest decline of conservative Protestants is found among older individuals. In addition, he says that younger black Protestants experienced an even greater decline.
What I believe to be most interesting about these statistics is that generational trends only partially or minimally account for these results. With the case of older evangelicals, the “young people have left the church and are the cause for our decline” argument doesn’t hold true. Even as younger black Protestants are leaving Protestantism, the factors of race and cultural context warrant further exploration. Additionally, it may be that some black youth and young adults are leaving Protestantism and switching to another tradition (perhaps Pentecostal or Holiness traditions). I haven’t had a chance to explore the Faith Communities Today (FACT) data as much as I’d like, but I suspect this and other studies would help to determine the nuances of what’s happening.
Either way, simple explanations don’t tell the whole story.
More on David Roozen’s article next time…
(Figure from The Christian Century)