No, Evangelicalism Isn’t In Decline

Challenging Jonathan Merritt’s notion that Evangelicalism is declining as are mainline denominations

On almost every point of fact, Merritt is simply wrong. There are more evangelicals in America today than at any time in our nation’s history. Conservative denominations have continued to grow for the past fifty years while liberal denominations have declined. Currently, 1 in 5 Americans is an evangelical, including 22 percent of older Millennials and 19 percent of younger Millennials.

 

In his famous review in the philosophy journal Mind, Sir Peter Medawar said of the work of paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that, “its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.” Something similar could be said for Jonathan Merritt’s latest column on how evangelicals have “misread America’s religious landscape.” Merritt isn’t intentionally trying to mislead his readers; he’s probably just gone to great pains to deceive himself first.

Merritt’s column is based on an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center that reveals that certain sectors of Christianity—particularly Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches—continue to shrink while the number of evangelicals in America is growing. But because the results do not fit with Merritt’s predetermined narrative he attempts to shift the metrics of what constitutes “growth.”

“Yes, mainline denominations remain in sharp decline, and yes, evangelicals have fared slightly better overall.” Merritt claims that, “Yet many evangelical bodies have begun shrinking as a share of the population as well.”

Until recently, the claim made by critics like Merritt was that people were fleeing evangelicalism. But survey after survey has proven that idea to be false, and that the number of evangelicals has in fact been increasing. The reality is that the number of evangelicals in America has been growing since 1972. That requires a shifting of the goalpost in order to save their preconceptions. “Okay, evangelicalism is growing,” they now admit, “but they aren’t increasing as a percentage of the total population.”

That’s true, but so what? As the Pew survey shows, the evangelical share of the population has remained comparatively stable. From 2007 to 2015 the percentage of evangelicals changed slightly from 26.3 percent to 25.4 percent of the population, while Mainline and Catholic groups declined by more than 3 percent each.

If we use the “percentage of the population” as a metric then the current rate of decline for evangelicals could continue for 95 years before we’d reach the same percentage (14.7 percent) that the Mainline churches hold today. By that time—in the year 2110—Mainline churches would have (assuming they continued to decline at their current rate) ceased to exist for more than 60 years.

But maybe when Merritt refers to “evangelical bodies” he means individual denominations, rather than evangelicalism as a whole.

If we look at the short-term (year-to-year) trends, we may be able to detect a decline in some groups, especially in large denominations. For instance, Merritt mentions the Southern Baptist Convention—the largest Protestant denomination in America—declined “as a percentage of the population” by 1.5 percent. Yet as Merritt notes,

During this same time period, among mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church declined by 1.5 percent, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declined by 0.6 percent, the Presbyterian Church (USA) declined by 0.2 percent, the United Church of Christ declined by only 0.1 percent, and the American Baptist Churches USA actually grew by 0.3 percent.

This certainly sounds bad for the Baptists until you remember that the SBC comprises, by itself, 11 percent of all Protestants in America, while the four denominations Merritt mentions comprise only 15 percent of Protestantism combined. Additionally, 5.3 percent of all U.S. adults belong to the SBC—again more than all four of those denominations combined. It was inevitable that the phenomenal growth the SBC has experienced since the mid-1960s would slow or plateau. But it would be reading too much into the data to assume that after a 45 percent increase in SBC membership over 50 years, a 1.5 percent shift over seven years would be a sign of rapid decline.

Also, in the case of the SBC and other conservative denominations, the trend seems to be that if churches are losing members it is mostly to other conservative denominations, especially non-denominational ones. (Many non-denominational churches are all but indistinguishable from SBC churches in theology and ecclesiology). As Pew notes, the most significant growth in Protestantism is in the increase of nondenominational churches, which grew from 4.5 percent to 6.2 percent of all U.S. adults.

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