Monday, 7 October 2013

Cheshire Cats and Churches

`All right,' said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

`Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin,' thought Alice; `but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!'

Fading away. That seems the reality for traditional churches in the secular West.

America is a bit different. But even in the land of high octane televangelism the trend is undeniable. What to do, what to do...

Over at John Petty's Progressive Involvement blog there's a piece about decline among ELCA Lutherans (and I guess, by extension, among other Protestant bodies). It's an intriguing piece in that John isn't panicking. In fact, despite the stats, John maintains that things are not too bad.

The reasons highlighted for the drop in numbers are:
  • lower birthrates among affluent Protestants.
  • the flow on effect from 9/11 and the child abuse scandal in the Catholic church.
  • reaction against the religious right.
And that's got to be part of the deal, particularly in the US.

But down here at the bottom of the Pacific the decline of mainline denominations is even more pronounced. Here the vile religious right has never had the undue influence it has had in America. Here we didn't experience 9/11 as a direct attack on our very identity.

Lower birthrates are certainly a factor in Australia and New Zealand, but I reflect that, of those fine young folk who posed with shining faces for their confirmation class photo in the year I officially became a member at St. Matthew's in Hamilton, there are - to the best of my knowledge - no 'survivors'. Not a one. 

Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians - dropping (demographically) like flies! Some few may cross over into the happy-clappy fringe churches, but most quietly adjust to life with a relaxed Sunday brunch and no frenzied rush to warm a pew.

John concludes: "We are in decline numerically, and for a host of understandable reasons.  We are not in decline as a body of Christians involved in mission.  In fact, on that score, you could argue that we are better than ever."

That's optimistic, but I'm not sure it's realistic, but whatever your view it's an excellent piece of writing. Read the post for yourself and see if you're convinced.

(Apologies for the bad link in the final paragraph, now fixed!)


  1. How it's supposed to work:
    As scientific enlightenment increases, the intrinsic truth of Christianity is progressively confirmed and, thus, a greater proportion of mankind converts.

    What actually has happened: The opposite.

    Therefore Christianity is unscientific mythology [Occam's Razor]

  2. IMO, in the USA the influence of mainstream denominations is fading, although the extremest right-wing Chistians have been becoming more influential, especially politically.
    Your previous blog entry mentioned pseudoarchaeologist Ron Wyatt, whose "findings" are fradulent.
    That reminded me of the pseudohistorian David Barton, whose provenly fradulent "findings" have come to be accepted in both [often deliberately?] ignorant right-wing religious circles and [often deliberately?] ignorant right-wing political circles in the USA.
    In spite of his proven record of being just another right wing Liar for Jesus, Barton has become a darling of both right-wing evangelicals and right-wing politicians, even being invited to and giving his pseudohistory- speaking in State Houses of state governments when taking time off from being on Glen Beck's programs.

  3. Traditional Protestant religions aren't alone: Since the 1990s there has been a significant decline among Sabbath keeping "Christian" religions for many of the same reasons.

    One of the biggest reasons seems to be the total lack of relevance in a world which seems to have changed drastically while no one in these sects have been looking: One morning you wake up and the world has gone from the Agrarian Bronze Age to the Internet connected social media industrialist space age (well, virtual space age... it's been awhile since we visited the moon in person and Mars seems so far away).

    The "God" of our fathers seems to have receded into the woodwork, so to speak and is not a part of people's lives much any more.

    If God Is real and a part of the Christian scene, it is a bad thing, but if we are talking about obsessed cults, it's a good thing.

    But some day we'll be sorry as those twin neutron stars get close enough to earth to kill all life with gamma radiation 10 million years from now.

  4. The problem with all of this has to do with the difficulty in identifying who is a valid Christian. There are two stories here. There are nominal Christians and there are the truly converted. All manner of things can happen among nominal Christians and it means nothing or little regarding the truly converted. Nominal Christians can decrease in numbers and genuine Christians can increase in numbers but the net effect can be a decline. There is no reliable way to tease apart these elements and to analyze these trends as to their impact on the invisible Body of Christ.

    While that is the statistical issue, the theological issue is different. On what premise is the idea based that the true church will increase throughout human history? Since I believe that God determines who is called and who is not, the church at any moment in history "is what it is" no matter what the statistical trends. My guess is that the invisible church has fluctuated in size throughout history, depending on a variety of conditions in the world and who knows what. What the trends regarding the invisible church actually are (if we could even identify them) and what they mean is only a matter of presumption.

    -- Neo

    1. Well, there's the "nominal" Christians of the mainstream variety and there are the cults of the "truly converted" variety. So, it's not too hard to figure it out - since the "invisible church" is only an hypothetical which doesn't exist except in the minds of those who wish it so. I've met some of those and none of them agree on the correct NT doctrines and hardly anything else in the real world. Every individual of this hypothetical "invisible church" seems to really only be a church unto themselves alone with their own private doctrines that no one else agrees with or accepts as valid. The few that do find people who agree will usually end up being the founder of yet another cult.

  5. Islam seems to be growing apace.

    It makes you wonder what the appeal in the Western World is.

  6. The Barna Group, founded by George Barna, does research on Christian issues. What is different about Barna is that he retains and reports the aspects of his research which might tend to be unpleasant for Christians, and might actually play into the hand of Christian detractors. Because of his reputation for this, astute pastors who seek to reverse some of the trends negatively affecting their communities and their churches use Barna's research as a steering resource. It has become part of the contemporary Christian "think tank".


  7. Good to hear that Barna is trying to inject a dose of honesty into Christendom.

    Too often, ridiculous Christian leaders' PR claims go unchallenged- like that of Dr. Tom Ellis, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention's Council on the Family, who falsely claimed that church-attending counselled Christians have a divorce rate of only 1 out of 39,000 marriages.

    The reality is that Christian marriages have a divorce rate that's equal to or higher than to divorce rate among atheists.
    And, that conservative Christians in the 'Bible Belt' of the USA have a divorce rate that's MUCH higher than that of more liberal Christians in the Northeast.

    Good for Barna for telling the truth and providing this potentially useful information, and hopefully more people will use the findings as a resource in making things better, instead of attacking him as so many Christian leaders have done.