Is religion in decline?

I traveled to Northern California last week and visited the ward that served the area where I grew up and where I was baptized as an adult. I had a sobering talk with the bishop. There were about 120 or so people in the Sacrament meeting. An area of about 300,000 people that used to serve four wards in two chapels is now one ward and one branch in one chapel. Yes, a chapel was closed. And the bishop told me there are more than 1000 inactive people in his ward alone.

My wife talked to a friend who was a bishop in the SF Bay Area, and the story is apparently the same in most northern California stakes: small, declining wards with huge numbers of people still on the membership lists who no longer go to church.

But on the other hand, the Sacrament meeting I attended was very nice, and I felt the Spirit quite strongly. And my wife and I went to the recently rededicated Oakland temple, and the endowment session was so packed in the middle of the day that extra chairs needed to be brought into the room.

It might be worth pointing out that my ward in rural/suburban Colorado is booming. I am the ward clerk, so I have the numbers. We average about 250 people for Sacrament meetings, up from about 140 just two years ago. New families are moving in every few weeks, and we are actually occasionally baptizing new converts.

According to Church numbers, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to grow, but more slowly. I enjoy reading this web site, which documents the growth.

And outside of our church, a fascinating thing is going on worldwide: according to many sources, religious participation is up significantly, not down as many people apparently believe. And it is the more conservative, traditional churches that are growing.

Many of the narratives you hear — the world is awash in atheism and people only want churches that preach left-wing social justice — are simply not true. It is certainly true that in certain pockets of the world, such as Western Europe and many left-wing enclaves of the United States, Christian church attendance is down. It is also true that traditional Christian teachings are under attack in the West and that the media and the dominant culture appear to promote a variety of non-traditional lifestyles that would have been considered undeniably sinful just a few decades ago.

Conservative religious people have very little influence over the dominant culture in the United States and Europe. But a strange thing is happening at the same time: in the West, traditional religious people are more dedicated than ever, and when you look at the picture worldwide, religious belief overall is ascendant.

This article discusses two new books that are looking at this issue in depth. The books are: “The Triumph of Faith” by Baylor University Professor Rodney Stark (published in 2015) and “The Myth of the Dying Church” by Glenn T. Stanton (published this year).

I will quote at length from the article discussing the books:

From Stark’s book:

“Contrary to the constant predictions that religion is doomed, there is abundant evidence of an ongoing world-wide religious awakening. Never before have four out of five people on Earth claimed to belong to one of the great world faiths,” Stark writes.
“Today, there are millions of devout Protestants in Latin America; not so long ago, there were none. Even so, Latin American Catholics are far more religious than ever before.

“Sub-Saharan Africa is now home to more church-going Christians than anywhere else on Earth, and North Africa and the Middle East are ablaze with Muslim fervor.

“Hinduism has never been stronger and India’s transport system are straining to meet the demands of pilgrims. The Chinese have rebuilt tens of thousands of temples destroyed by the Red Guards, and million have converted to Christianity.

“Only in parts of Europe are the churches still rather empty, but this is not the reliable sign of secularization it has long been said to be; it is, rather, a sign of lazy clergy and unsuitable religions. As has been said, ‘Europe is a continent of believing non-belongers.’”

Among the most amazing data points Stark cites in reporting these facts is this, from the Gallup World Poll: Ninety percent of Nigerians said they attended a religious service in the past week, 88 percent in Burundi and 82 percent in Liberia. The sub-Saharan average is 71 percent.

From Stanton’s book:

“Liberal churches are hemorrhaging members. Churches that are bailing on Christian orthodoxy — those denying the deity of Christ; rejected the reality of sin; doubting the historical reality of Christ’s death and resurrection; and embracing abortion, gay and gender politics — are all in drastic free fall. People are leaving those churches as though the buildings were on fire. They can’t get out fast enough,” Stanton writes.
“Biblical churches are holding strong. Churches that are faithfully preaching, teaching and practicing biblical truths and conservative theology are holding stable overall. Some are seeing steady growth and others are exploding …

“Church attendance is at an all-time high. More Americans in raw numbers and as a percentage of the population, attend church today than at any other time in our nation’s history, including the colonial days. That’s hardly scary news.

“More young adults attend biblically faithful churches today than attended nearly 50 year ago. According to some of the best sociological data, the percentage of young adults regularly attending evangelical and non-denominational churches has roughly doubled between 1972 and today.

“Atheism and agnosticism are not growing wildly. Both have grown in the last few years, but they are an extreme minority, accounting for just about seven percent of all U.S. adults.

“The ‘Nones’ are not new unbelievers. The infamous ‘Nones’ — those reporting to have no particular institutional — are indeed a growing category. This has been widely reported. But there is something very important to note here: They are not a new category. They are not folks who have left a once-living faith, but rather those who merely had a cold or lukewarm family history of church identity and now feel more comfortable saying ‘I don’t really identify with anything.’ It’s not a change in belief. Instead, it’s an honest explanation for where they’ve always been.”

We often hear — even in the comments of this blog — that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints needs to embrace left-wing orthodoxy and social justice to gain new members. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: it turns out that people go to church to be reminded of the truth of absolute morality. People are attracted to a “tough love” gospel that teaches people to reject the pablum preached by popular culture. Quietly, but insuperably, God’s word marches forth.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

18 thoughts on “Is religion in decline?

  1. Geoff, I see the same dwindling in southern CA wards that you describe in northern CA, but the reason I think is purely economic and not faith based. Bay area and much of LA, expensive housing getting more expensive every year; Sacramento and suburban CO, affordable housing. Young, committed LDS families are migrating to where they can buy homes and establish families, much of coastal CA no longer allows that and young members are voting with their feet.

  2. One thing that I have always wondered about with people who are in the church that preach social justice is that if we were to do that, to change our doctrines to harmozine with the world, what would make us any different than any other church? One of the great things about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that we are different. We do stand out for our doctrines. I’m *very* thankful for the clarity the gospel provides. You can find social justice out in the world if you want.

  3. I was a little worried, hearing all the dire predictions about church membership and such, until I saw how many people turned up to hear the prophet speak recently in Seattle and Arizona, 49,000 and 65,000 !

    It was good to see, it calmed my nerves.

    Thanks for the links to those books Geoff B., those seem like good ones to read.

    I have been saving articles on my blog about Church growth, and the decline of some liberal churches, etc. for quite some time now. It seems like the Church is headed in the right direction, where sadly the world is headed in the very wrong direction.

  4. I live in Northern CA (probably a bit further north than you went) and a lot of it has to do with cost of living and CA’s kinda-crumbling infrastructure/rising crime. I swear half my ward is moving to Idaho. They used to go to Utah, and some still do, but Idaho is huge now. I grew up on the Central Coast, and when I go back, I see the stake has shrunk a good deal, because so many people have moved away to cheaper, more family-friendly areas. It’s been going on down there for 20+ years, but has recently accelerated in my own area. My ward had to be rearranged twice in the last ten years because we kept growing so fast (mostly move-ins), and now that’s starting to reverse.

    Yes, we’re losing people in other ways, especially over LGBT issues, but we’re also gaining a few converts every year too. When it comes to whole families, though, they’re mostly just moving away.

  5. Geoff B, those anecdotes, especially from overseas, from those books support my thesis that the Lord is currently guiding many of His elect to Evangelical/Pentecostal churches as a “staging area” or “holding area” before bringing them to the Restored church.

    Historically, we have “poached” converts from other churches more than we have converted totally non-christian and “unchurched” people, relatively speaking. We have not done well in totally non-Christian lands.

    Evangelical inroads in areas preceded our great harvest of converts in both South America and Africa. (Evs went to S.A in numbers in the 1950’s, and our growth there started in the late 70’s).

    BTW, there are already 26 million Catholics in India, according to Wiki. And the Catholic church in the US is “importing” priests and nuns from Africa, India, and the Pacific Islands to fill needed slots in the US.

    I don’t know the Evangelical/Pentecostal figures or historical dates for India. But if patterns hold true, we will have a boom in conversion activity there about 20 years after they started making inroads there. The groundwork has been laid with the announcment of the Bangalore (Bengaluru) temple to prepare future leaders. There are two missions in India last I looked. I don’t know the figures for number of stakes.

    But the general population _density_ in India is staggering. 900 some people per square mile. So growing via “centers of strength” will be facilitated by family relationships and word of mouth among friends.

    There is a huge Indian diaspora inthe US. there is tremendous opportunity for “linkage”, transmitting the gospel among family, back and forth.

    We should rejoice when we see Evangelical/Pentecostal growth in the US or anywhere in the world. They are nurturing and preparing our future converts.

  6. Are the liberal churches hemorrhaging, or are the liberals? Your Northern California data point would imply the latter, right?

  7. This matches the article I read this week about why young women are choosing to become nuns in greater numbers than ever before. The author was Jewish and pointed out that orthodox Jews are younger than ever proportionally and that the young women she talked to for her article told her explicitly they were seeking a religion that required obedience and devotion. Most were reared in nonparticipatory Catholic families. The author pointed to the same data quoted in your article indicating that young people (under 40) are seeking religious dedication and much prefer conservative religions that espouse traditional values.
    I was very encouraged by both these articles considering that my own children have largely rejected the Church of Jesus Christ.

  8. Book, I tend to agree with your approach. I have several Latter-day Saint friends who really don’t like evangelicals mostly because they see them as ignorant hicks. Of course this is pure bigotry, but such is life. I tend to see other Christian religions as often preparatory for accepting the restored Gospel. But I would point out that there was an evangelical couple in our ward in Colorado that got baptized and was very faithful at church for a time but never really felt comfortable. They ended up going back to their evangelical church. So, you never know….

  9. When I had young children in a Virginia suburb of D.C. a neighbor, probably evangelical, invited my children to a ‘Bible class’. Instead of teaching Bible stories she urged them to confess the reality of Christ, believing that was all that was needed for them to be ‘saved’. I was dubious about this form of ‘instant salvation’ at the time, but in the world we live in I see a real utility of introducing a relatively simple form of belief as a preparatory step. Although higher education has earned a dimming reputation in recent years, in a real sense the Restored Gospel is the ‘higher education’ of Christianity. As implied by Bookslinger, the simple facts of Christ’s Atonement and our need to turn to Him are vital. The other things added by the Restored Gospel are important and should be cherished, but without the initial act of admitting our dependence on the Savior and humbly seeking redemption the rest loses meaning. The winnowing of true believers from social Christians is a good thing.

  10. Geoff, historically, the Lord has had an affinity for “less-educated unsophisticated” folks, such as Galileans and back-woods New Yorkers.

    Interestingly, the RLDS and the Strangites long held that it was the “hicks” in the church who followed Brigham Young westward.

    Re: converts feeling comfortable at church. In the last two general conferences, Elder Soares in both his talks said that everyone should be greeted at church. At the last GC, Elder Holland spoke at length on arriving for sacrament meeting on time.

    Greeting people is hard to do when half the ward arrives at the last second, and 25% arrive after the meeting starts.

    I’ve written a series of blog posts about using the time immediately before and after the sunday meetings to be more sociable:

  11. “The winnowing of true believers from social Christians is a good thing.”

    Well from a purity ratio perspective maybe, but when it comes to a society which functions on shared values it’s proving a disaster.

    If we don’t have Christianity as the common story that binds us, were do we have? Patriotism? Well that’s gone too. What about something as elementary as the human family? No can’t even agree on the concept of Father, mother, marriage, family.

    Identity politics and self serving intellectuals have destroyed the ties that bind us.

    Social Christianity might be good in the long run to get rid of if it hastens the day, but it will bring a lot of pain in the interim.

  12. My mission to Japan in the early eighties taught me about this concept of preparation for accepting the more advanced course in Christianity offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of LDS.
    Elder Bradford introduced a special lesson on God and His nature, somewhat like Ammon’s introduction to King Lamoni, to bridge the gap for Japanese people. If they understood, and were willing to accept and desired to believe that such a god could exist, then we could proceed to the regular set of lessons. If not, we were to move on.
    So I can relate to the comments talking about a preparatory phase for non-Christians.

  13. @Joel, Preach My Gospel now has a lesson for “square zero” (ie, people with no Christian background in a predominantly non-Christian culture) doesn’t it?

    Even in Western Civ, something like that is needed nowadays for 2nd generation atheists under age, say…, 45. Younger than that, they never, or hardly ever, “picked up” anything about the Judeo-Christian God from home, school, or media.

    @libcon, as I may have written elsewhere, “Social Christianity” has about run it’s course. The white-bread namby-pamby goody-two-shoes types of Protestantism (mainline churches) are dwindling. Their _traditions_ alone are not enough to fight off secularism/PCism/leftism.

    Religions/denominations that require sacrifice, obedience, inner transformation, and that transmit “fire”/Spirit to the younger generation (Evangelical, Pentecostal, i.e. “charismatic”) will be ones that continue. I think that has and will hold in the true church too. Are we just transmitting rote “bla-bla-bla” to the kids, or are we actually catching them on fire? Well, for starters, the transmitters have to be on fire before the receivers can catch fire. Just _saying_ “bla bla bla”, even when “bla bla bla” is true, isn’t good enough. It’s a start, but it doesn’t close the deal.

    If the Roman Catholic church in the US is to stave off further precipitous decline, it will be mainly due to Spanish-speaking and other immigrants….. if they bring the Fire with them, otherwise they will use up their “social capital” too. Non-immigrant Catholic congregations are now (reported to be) mainly elderly and mainly female.
    (I occasionaly visited a Catholic mass with a friend, and the lack of males didn’t hit me until the congregational hymn, and the lack of male voices surprised me, and made me look around… hardly any men, almost no teen or young adult males.)

    LDS church programs are designed to “transmit the fire” _if done correctly_ and not just as rote traditions: weekly FHE, daily family prayer/scripture-reading, seminary, missions, etc.

    It’s an interesting thing: The Evangelicals and Pentecostals have “less _truth_” and “less _authority_” than the True and Authorized Church… But in at least some instances they have more enthusiasm/”Fire”.

  14. Geoff-AUS,

    These two posts by J Max Wilson faithfully address your recent comments in other M* threads, and your previous comment in this thread. He quotes/links extensively from the Brethren.

    Those links are worthy of bookmarking for anyone wanting to know faithful rejoinders to the issues you raised.

  15. Geoff,
    Thanks for providing this perspective. It is extraordinarily harmful for Latter-day Saints to buy into what I would call secular propaganda. It creates a seige mentality and we lose hope in our fellow theists. The truth is that while religious viewpoints are under attack, the situation is not so dire. There are many people of good will and meaningful religiosity on this planet, and I believe they are in the majority.

  16. GEOFF-AUS (and other commenters): this blog is different than other blogs. Comments that do not support the Brethren are not welcome here. There are thousands of other blogs where you can leave such comments, but not here. Thanks for understanding.

  17. One of the constant refrains you hear from lefty commenters is that “the Church must change to help other people more included.” The Church should not change, but the members should change in important ways. This article from the Church offers some suggestions about how members can make changes to help people feel more included:

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