Friday, March 13, 2009

The Shrinking Church

In recent years many Christian denominations have acknowledged slower growth rates while claiming an increase in the number of adherents. Certainly, it is good that the Church is experiencing growth and not stagnating, or is it? Do the numbers really tell the whole story?

The recently released American Religious Identification Survey 2008, issued out of Trinity College in Hartford, CT, tells a different story. The Survey does confirm that, from 1990 to 2008, those affiliated with the Christian Church increased some 13.5%, from 151.2 million to 173.4 million. However, during that same time the US population increased about 30% from 175.4 million to 228.2 million.

What this survey found is that those who identified themselves with the Christian Church now represent 76% of the population; whereas, in 1990 this group represented 86.2% of the population. So, compared to the population as a whole, the Christian Church is shrinking in size, and possibly influence.

When broken down into subcategories, (i.e. Baptists, Methodists, Lutheran, etc.) almost all groups either saw only modest growth or a decrease in the percentage of the overall population they represented in 2008, from that of 1990. A few groups however did see quite remarkable growth and serve as good indicators of the spiritual trends emerging in today's culture.

During this same time frame, the survey indicates "eastern religions" have increased from 0.4% of the population to 0.9% and Buddhism, from 0.2% to 0.5%. This means that each of these have experienced over a 50% growth rate. Atheism and agnosticism (which were grouped together in 1990's survey) have also increased over 50%, from 0.7% of the population to 1.6%; as has the Muslim growth rate, increasing from 0.3% of the population to 0.6%.

Combined, these five groups have increased from representing 1.6% of the population to representing 3.6% of the population. To give this some perspective, they comprise a larger, or nearly as large, segment of the population than the Jewish religion (1.2%) and the following Christian groups: Lutherans (3.8%), Presbyterian (2.1%), Episcopal/Anglican (1.1%), Pentecostal (3.5%)

While mainline Christian churches continue to experience small growth, they are actually growing smaller in relation to the overall population. At the same time, the Survey found that those who choose not to identify themselves with any particular religion are seeing explosive growth, increasing from 8.2% of the population in 1990 to 14.1% in 2001 and now to 15%, in 2008.

Clearly, these trends indicate there is a growing disinterest in the Christian Church; at least as it is currently presented or perceived. This is not the first time in its history the Church has been so viewed. Furthermore, these statistics, and other trends that we have been reporting, seem to give evidenced that the culture is doing a much better job of absorbing the Church than is the Church in changing the culture.

It is imperative that those who follow Christ begin to engage the culture with the redemptive message of the gospel. For, it is only the hope that we have in Christ that can turn around these numbers and the trends they represent. And, that is certainly something to hope, pray, and labor for.

Truly, the fields are white unto harvest.