Interesting post by Diana-Butler Bass
Author of Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler-Bass posted the following on Belief Net
The Real Decline of Churches
By: Diana Butler Bass
Monday July 20, 2009
Three news stories in recent days point to significant change in the landscape of North American religion. For decades now, the conventional wisdom about church growth has been that only conservative churches--those that take the Bible literally and embrace conservative politics--could grow. But it appears that conventional wisdom is being seriously questioned.
Take a look at these stories:
1. The Southern Baptist Convention--the largest and most conservative Protestant denomination in the USA--records a continued decline in baptisms and an increasingly aging membership. The oft-reported number of 18 million members has declined in the last decade to just over 16 million. And, according to journalist Christine Wicker (see her book, The Fall of Evangelical Nation), the internal number of active members may well be around 5 million people.
2. The Anglican Church of North America, the umbrella group for conservative Episcopalians who have left their denomination over women's ordination and full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons, has long claimed over 100,000 members. Recently, they admitted that only 69,000 persons in 650 churches in the USA and Canada have joined their association. There are 2.2 million Episcopalians in the United States and approximately 1 million in Canada. Thus, the conservative group--the one that has garnered so much media attention in recent years is a very small percentage of the entire North American Anglican membership--some 2% of the total. And with their rigid opposition to women's ordination, it is hard to imagine that this group will find much appeal with young North Americans.
3. President Jimmy Carter last week publicly explained why he renounced his life-long affiliation with the Southern Baptists in an opinion piece appearing in The Age. He denounced the Convention's leaders statement that women are inferior to men (created "second") and responsible for original sin as inherently discriminatory and that Southern Baptist views on gender were contrary to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the teachings of Jesus.
Taken singly, the stories might seem anecdotal. But there are many other examples as well--the decline of Roman Catholicism among all demographic groups except new immigrant communities, the acceptance of LGBT inclusion among young evangelicals--and added together they are snapshots of what quantitative surveys have been pointing out for a couple of years--that membership decline isn't only the struggle of liberal churches. As Jon Meacham wrote earlier this year in a Newsweek cover story, many conservative Christian groups aren't really doing very well, either. The old accusation--and theological threat used by conservatives against mainline denominations--that the denominations have failed because they are too liberal--is now being proved false by both qualitative journalists and quantitative researchers. Almost all Christian institutions are experiencing slowing growth and/or membership declines. The only growing Christian churches in North America are "non-denominational," and those congregations are difficult to classify theologically because they are so diverse.
What is causing the erosion of Christianity in North America? Most North Americans look at Christianity--especially as embodied in religious institutions--and find it wanting. I suspect that Christianity is in decline because it appears both hypocritical and boring. Although young North Americans express deep longings for a loving, just, and peaceful world, they don't find an equal passion for transforming society in meaningful ways in most congregations. And, sadly, many churches simply lack the imagination and passion that many spiritual people are searching for. Folks aren't looking for answers nearly as much as they are trying to clarify their questions and are hungry for accepting communities in which to ask them.
If you think about it, mainline liberal churches embody a theological vision of God's reign that resonates with contemporary hopes for social transformation. But they often lack passion, acting on God's dream for the world in business-as-usual ways. Conservative churches are chock-full of passion. But they are often passionate about all the wrong stuff--like excluding people and supporting the military-and-economic status quo that is destroying the planet.
Perhaps North American Christians are smarter than anyone suspects--that we are looking for congregations, communities and denominations that put the pieces together--passionate, imaginative, open, justice-seeking, inclusive, and loving gatherings of faith that actually live, as Jimmy Carter put it, "the teachings of Jesus Christ." If progressive faith communities can be both--transformative and passionate--we may be better poised to reach a new generation than the "decline" bellyaching of recent decades suggests. With the waning of conservative churches, it may well be the historical moment for the rest of us to step up the the spiritual plate.