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.