The Eclectic Christian, Michael Bell, is a long-time IM reader and commenter. He can also count all his digits, which puts him way past me when it comes to the statistical evaluation of the ARIS data and the Evangelical Collapse posts. Welcome Michael as an IM guest blogger and take note of his conclusions.
Michael Spencer has published a series of articles about a coming Evangelical collapse in the United States. One, published in the Christian Science Monitor, has stirred up a great deal of debate, both inside and outside the Christian community. As a person who is greatly interested in statistics, I was very interested in seeing if Michael’s claims could be borne out by statistical analysis. Let’s look at some of his statements and see if these ideas can be statistically supported.
1. “Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.”
Let start by looking at the present day numbers. Michael says that between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelical. According to the recently released American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), of the 228,182,000 adult Americans in the survey, 77,747,000 self identify as “Evangelical” or “Born Again”, a number equivalent to 34% of the adult population. These numbers come from across the theological spectrum and include a significant percentage (18.4%) of Catholics who identify themselves as Evangelical as well as members (38.6%) of mainline denominations. So when Michael says that a maximum of 35% of Americans are Evangelical, he is pretty much on the money.
If you only want to count those Evangelicals who are not attending Catholic or mainline denominations you have a number of 56,500,000 who identify as Evangelical or “Born Again”, a number equal to 24.8% of the total adult population. So it would appear that Michael’s range of 25-35% was an extremely accurate starting point.
2. “Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants.”
While certain segments of evangelicalism will remain strong, as affirmed by Michael in his article, much of Evangelicalism will see significant decline, particularly among the Baptists, who currently make up over 50% of American Evangelicals.
Consider this: In the general population, 22% of adults are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine, while 28% of adults are between the ages of fifty and sixty-nine. When we calculate the ratio between these two groups we come up with a ration of .785 to one. This means that if you want to keep up with the general population trends, for every 1000 adults you have between the ages of fifty and sixty-nine, you will need 785 adults who are currently between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine with which to replace them.
So how do the Baptist fare? For Baptists 11% are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine while 37% are between the ages of fifty and sixty-nine This calculates out to a ratio of .297 to 1. In other words there are only 297 adult Baptist between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine for every 1000 adults between the ages of fifty and sixty-nine.
When we compare the numbers of 297 with 785 we find that Baptists are only reproducing themselves at 37.8% of the rate at which the general population is reproducing itself! While people who call themselves Baptists are 15.8% of the population today (according to ARIS), in less than two generations we are looking at Baptists potentially being only 6.0% of the general population (15.8% times 37.8%).
We should note that the actual number of attendees of Baptist churches may be slightly higher than the numbers would indicate as you will likely see Christians who do not self identify as Baptists going to Baptist churches. (I would be one who falls into that category today.) Admittedly there will also be other factors involved: People also have a tendency to come back to the church later in life. Other Evangelical Christian groups are statistically healthier than the Baptists are currently, so Evangelicals as a whole will likely not fare as badly as the Baptists. What this does tell us though is that at least for Baptists, less than two generations from now they will likely be less than half as strong as they are now. Michael’s prediction is looking pretty accurate.
3. “We are on the verge â€“ within 10 years â€“ of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity.”
According to ARIS, currently 21% of adult Baptists are over the age of seventy. (I keep using Baptists in my examples as they are a good representation of evangelicals and it helps to keep things consistent for now.) In ten years, based on what we know of life expectancy, roughly this number of Baptists will have died. Yes, some of those who are currently older than 70 will still be with us, but at least a corresponding number who are currently under 70 will also have died. They will be replaced by the children of those Baptists who are now in the eighteen to twenty-nine year range, which as mentioned previously is 11% of adult Baptists. Assuming that those who are in the eighteen to twenty-nine year range roughly reproduce themselves over the next ten years, you will have a net decrease in Baptists over the next ten years of roughly 10%.
So as Michael has said, the next ten years should be the beginning of the collapse, and as was shown earlier in the article, this collapse should continue for several decades until half of the Baptists are gone.
4. “This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West. “
I did an interesting study a number of months ago entitled Southern Baptists in Decline – Where will it end? In the study I looked at the ratio of attendance to membership in denomination both in Canada and the United States. In doing so, I made the interesting discovery that:
Generally if your attendance is under 50% of your members and adherents your church will likely decline over the next ten years. Conversely if your attendance is greater that 50% of your members and adherents, your church will likely grow over the next 10 years. There are of course exceptions to the rule.
Almost all mainline churches were under the 50% ration, and almost all had experienced significant decline. One of the interesting exceptions to the 50% rule was found in the Southern Baptists, who despite having an attendance to membership ration of roughly 28%, managed a small growth between 1990 and 2000. I attributed it at the time to a positive “Evangelical” factor. What I did not realize at the time was that the Southern Baptists had not yet reached what Michael Spencer calls the “generational horizon.” The Baptists were a generation behind the mainline church in terms of the age of their members, and while the mainline churches have already experienced significant decline, the Baptist are only just beginning their decline. I should note that from the ARIS data we can see that the mainline churches now have a much healthier distribution of members (especially compared to the Baptists), although one that still indicates that decline will continue in relation to their proportion of the general population.
5. Despite some very successful developments in the past 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism.
One statistic that really jumped out at me when going through the ARIS data was the statistics on Education. In the general population, 27% of those of the age twenty-five and older were college graduates. In Baptist churches the figure was 16%, and in Pentecostal churches the figure was 13%. I am seeing more and more of the Western world viewing Evangelicals as ignorant and uneducated and not worthy or participating fully in the public square. Unfortunately the education numbers seem to support their thesis. Are there Evangelicals who are going to rise to this challenge?
This ties into the last point of Michael’s that I wanted to look at today:
5. This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.
If you want to know what the America is going to look like in forty years, and how Evangelicals will be treated, look at Canada today. Here are some numbers on Canadian Christians. If my statistical analysis up to this point has been correct, then Evangelical numbers in the USA in forty years will be very similar to Evangelical numbers in Canada today. Much of what Michael has said about the way Evangelicals will be treated in the USA is already true in Canada. Michael also talks about the rise of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement and it is these churches, along with moderate charismatics like the Christian and Missionary Alliance who are leading the way in church growth in Canada. I do not have the time or space to go into further details, but forty years from now it will be a much different world from what you are currently experiencing.
All is not lost however, Michael and many of his commentators have talked about what can be done. I am pleased to report that Evangelicals in Canada are starting to show signs of health and growth again. Perhaps too, Michael has given a wake up call that, like in the story of Jonah, if not ignored can lead to significantly different results.
Your thoughts and comments are welcome.