demographics

Southern Baptists facing hard truths behind the red ink in their great book of numbers

Southern Baptists facing hard truths behind the red ink in their great book of numbers

It was the rare Billy Graham Evangelistic Association event in which Graham was in the audience -- incognito in a hat and dark glasses -- and his brother-in-law Leighton Ford was in the pulpit.

Graham was set to preach the next day, noted Ford, who told this story many times. At the altar call, Graham saw that the man seated in front of him was struggling. Leaning forward, but remaining anonymous, Graham asked if he wanted to go forward and accept Jesus as his Savior.

No, the man replied, "I'll just wait 'til the big gun preaches tomorrow night."

There was a time when Baptists and other evangelicals could count on ordinary people -- unbelievers even -- showing up at crusades and local "revivals" for a variety of reasons. Some were worried about heaven, hell and the state of their souls. Some were impressed by strong local churches and figured they had little to lose, and maybe something to gain, by walking the aisle and getting baptized.

That was then. Anyone who has studied Southern Baptist Convention statistics knows that times have changed. That will be a big subject looming in the background when America's largest Protestant flock gathers next week (June 11-12) in Birmingham, Ala., for its annual national convention.

For decades, Southern Baptists have "relied on revivalism" as an evangelistic engine that would deliver church growth, noted the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken.

"The problem is that revivalism only works when Christianity is triumphant or on the rise," he said, reached by telephone. "Revivalism … it isn't going to be as effective when Christianity is seen to be in eclipse -- like it is in American culture at this point."

Southern Baptist membership hit 14.8 million last year, down from 16.3 million in 2006 -- falling 8 percent in that era. That reality cannot be ignored, even if it isn't has stunning as the 30-50 percent declines seen in mainline Protestant churches since the 1960s. The most telling statistics point to declines in baptisms, which fell 3 percent in 2018 -- 246,442 baptisms -- following a 9 percent drop in 2017.

Future of all those Roman (and American) churches? No need for anxiety, says pope

Future of all those Roman (and American) churches? No need for anxiety, says pope

It's a statistic tourists in Rome often hear while gazing at centuries of glorious architecture: The eternal city contains more than 900 churches.

Other statistics will affect those holy sites in the future.

For example, a record-low 458,151 births occurred last year in Italy. The fertility rate -- currently 1.32, far below a 2.1 replacement rate -- is expected to decline again this year. Meanwhile, the number of marriages fell 6 percent, between 2016 and 2017, and religious marriages plunged 10.5 percent.

"Currently we are at a roughly terminal stage. It would not be bad if the Church, the first to pay the price, would understand this and get moving," noted demographer Roberto Volpi, quoted in the newspaper Il Foglio.

Thus, lots of Rome's 900-plus churches will be empty in the next generation or so.

That was the context of remarks by Pope Francis during a recent Pontifical Council for Culture conference, a gathering with this sobering title: "Doesn't God dwell here any more? Decommissioning places of worship and integrated management of ecclesiastical cultural heritage."

Francis stressed: "The observation that many churches, which until a few years ago were necessary, are now no longer thus, due to a lack of faithful and clergy, or a different distribution of the population between cities and rural areas, should be welcomed in the Church not with anxiety, but as a sign of the times that invites us to reflection and requires us to adapt."

The church has problems, but there are "virtuous" ways to deal with them, he said. Bishops in Europe, North America and elsewhere are learning to cope.

"Decommissioning must not be first and only solution … nor must it be carried out with the scandal of the faithful. Should it become necessary, it should be inserted in the time of ordinary pastoral planning, be proceded by adequate information and be a shared decision" involving civic and church leaders, he said.

Pope Francis appears to be advising Catholics not to worry too much as "For sale" or even "Property condemned" signs appear on lots of sanctuaries in some parts of the world, said Phil Lawler, a conservative journalist with 35 years of experience in diocesan and independent Catholic publications.

"The sentence that triggered me was when the pope said we shouldn't be ANXIOUS about all of this," he said.

When it comes to recruiting Catholic priests, doctrine often shapes demographics

When it comes to recruiting Catholic priests, doctrine often shapes demographics

The couples gathered for this Mass with Pope Francis knew a thing or two about marriage, since they were celebrating their 25th, 50th or 60th wedding anniversaries.

Still, the pope delivered a blunt homily on a painful family issue. The bottom line: Many Catholics do not want children.

"There are things that Jesus doesn't like," said Francis, in a 2014 service at the Vatican guesthouse he calls home. For example, there are parents who simply "want to be without fruitfulness."

Today's "culture of well-being," he said, has "convinced us that it's better to not have children! It's better. That way you can see the world, be on vacation. You can have a fancy home in the country. You'll be carefree." Apparently, many Catholics think it's easier to "have a puppy, two cats, and the love goes to the two cats and the puppy. … Have you seen this?"

Yes, Catholic leaders can see that reality in their pews and they know falling birth rates are linked to many sobering trends, from parochial-school closings to once-thriving parishes needing sell their sanctuaries.

Then there is the annual survey from Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) reporting the number of men poised to be ordained as Catholic priests in the United States.

The class of 2018 is expected to be 430, and 25 percent of those men were foreign-born.

It's an often quoted fact: The number of men ordained each year is about a third of what's needed to replace priests who are retiring, dying or simply leaving. Two decades ago it was common to see between 800 and 900 ordinations a year.

Birth rates are the "overlooked factor in all of this," said sociologist Anne Hendershott, who leads the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. "It's kind of difficult to talk about this, because Catholic families used to be huge, which meant parents were willing to give up a son who wanted to enter the priesthood. Things have changed, obviously."

Catholic families in America are shrinking.

Concerning God, sex, worship and babies

Pollsters have been asking Americans questions about God, sex and babies for a long time and the answers used to be pretty predictable. Early in the 20th Century it was easy to predict which flocks of believers would produce the most children -- with Mormons reporting the highest numbers, followed by Catholics, then Protestants and so forth as fertility rates declined. But things changed as the century rolled on and America became more pluralistic and, in elite zip codes, secular.

After Woodstock and the Sexual Revolution, it was clear "what really mattered wasn't what religion you claimed to be practicing, but the degree to which you actually practiced it -- especially whether or not you were in a pew week after week," said journalist Jonathan A. Last, author of "What to Expect When No One's Expecting."

These days, people who attend worship services once a week or more have a sharply different fertility rate from those who avoid religious sanctuaries and "it really doesn't matter what kind of services we're talking about -- Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, Mormon, whatever. What matters is whether you show up."

The bottom line: An activity that encourages people to get married sooner, stay married longer and have a higher rate of happiness while married will almost certainly produce more babies. "When it comes to people having what people today consider large families -- three or more children -- there are two Americas out there," he said, and the division is between those who actively practice a faith, especially a traditional form of faith, and those who do not.

This is crucial information in an era in which declining birth rates affect debates about a wide array of hot-button cultural issues, from Social Security to national health care, from immigration reform to the future of major religious groups.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that U.S. births appear to be leveling off, although the numbers continued to show some decline. While birth rates edged up for women in their early '40s and throughout their '30s, rates kept falling for women in their '20s and among Latinos.

A key factor, Last explained, is "aspirational fertility," or the number of children that parents say they want to have. In the early 20th Century, a clear majority of Americans favored having three or more children. Now, 66 percent of those who seldom or never attend worship services say zero, one or two is ideal, while 41 percent of those worshipping weekly desire three or more children. If a woman frequently attends worship services, it is much more likely she will have a larger family, if that is her goal.

It's hard to pin political or cultural labels on some behaviors that are inspiring so many people to avoid marriage, to marry later, to have fewer children or to have their children later in life. At one end of the cultural spectrum is the 30something male whose solo life remains focused on his Xbox. At the other end is the professional woman working 70-hour weeks while striving to rise in a major law firm, even as her biological clock ticks loudly.

Of course, it also matters that children are expensive. In his book, Last examines a variety of expenses and career realities and concludes that it costs about $1.1 million to raise a single child, with home costs and college expenses higher in prime locations. When living in New York City, San Francisco or Washington, D.C., having two children is "having a lot of children," he said. "What's countercultural in one city is normal in another."

The bottom line is that Americans who choose to have large families are almost certainly making "some kind of theological statement," he said. "They are making countercultural decisions and people just don't keep taking specific countercultural actions without having some kind of purpose, a larger reason for what they are doing. ...

"Think of it this way. At some point, you have to ask: 'Am I the most important -- or even the only -- character that matters in the movie of my life? ... Parents just can't think that way and the more children you have the less you can afford to think of yourself as the center of everything that happens in the world. ... That's a very important lesson to learn about life."

The fall and the strange rise of liberal religion

The most recent Jewish Community Study of New York held few surprises for those who have followed the sobering Jewish trends of recent decades. Yes, the 1.5 million or so Jews living in New York City and surrounding counties included a rising tide of people living in interfaith relationships and some had even begun calling themselves "partially Jewish." Participation in liberal Jewish congregations declined, again. Jews who said it was "very important" to affiliate with Jewish institutions fell to 44 percent.

But one number was genuinely startling -- that 74 percent of the region's Jewish children were found in the one-third of the Jewish households that identified as Orthodox.

No wonder leaders of the Reform movement and other liberal Jewish institutions have been asking sobering questions about theology, demographics and the future.

"The liberal approach to observance makes it impossible to set and maintain high expectations in terms of communal participation," argued Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, in a much-debated broadside in The Forward. "Without an omnipotent God who can compel believers to practice a prescribed pattern of behavior, religious consumerism becomes the movement's dominant ethos. ...

"In the absence of a strong theological basis for making religious demands, the members lose interest and wander off."

There is, however, an ironic cultural reality hiding in all the negative trends that have been nagging liberal Judeo-Christian institutions, noted historian John Turner, who teaches religious studies at George Mason University.

This ironic wrinkle is easiest to see in the influential denominations scholars call the "seven sisters" of Protestantism. These churches, in descending order by size, are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life research found that, for the first time, America lacks a Protestant majority, with only 48 percent of the population claiming ties to Protestant denominations. This trend has affected a variety of churches, but the liberal mainline has been hit especially hard. Episcopal membership, for example, has fallen from 3.4 million in 1967 to 1.9 million in 2011. The United Church of Christ, President Barack Obama's denomination, has declined from more than 2 million members in 1962 to just over 1 million in 2011.

However, liberal religious groups "may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle," noted Turner, in an online First Things commentary. "Through their embrace of religious pluralism and more universal mystical religious experiences, liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas."

For example, liberal Protestants have -- backed by progressive elements in Catholicism and Judaism -- been victorious in their push to define religion's value in public life primarily in terms of social and economic justice, in contrast with more conservative groups that would stress both good works and evangelism.

Then there is religious liberalism's "much higher tolerance of pluralism," even on eternal issues tied to salvation, said Turner, in a telephone interview. Belief in "universalism" -- that all world religions lead to the same eternal ends -- remains "very divisive among evangelicals, but you would have to say that this belief has become the norm in Middle America."

Liberal religious leaders, he added, have been intensely committed to the "cultural prestige of science" in debates about life's big questions. They won that battle, too.

Religious liberals have also been much quicker to adapt to the looser moral standards of the Sexual Revolution, especially when changing ancient doctrines linked to hot-button topics such as sex outside of marriage, abortion and homosexuality.

"Actually, it's hard to know," said Turner, if mainline Protestants and other religious liberals "simply jumped on the bandwagon of the Sexual Revolution or if, in the end, they got run over by it."

The bottom line, he said, is that the religious left has the cultural momentum right now, even as its own institutions are wrestling with painful issues with demographics, membership totals and budgets.

However, stressed Turner, "it's hard to know what the future holds. ... I mean, Thomas Jefferson was absolutely sure that Unitarianism was the future of religion in America. That isn't how things turned out, at least not in terms of what's happened in America in the past."

Fewer Protestants, but better Protestants?

After decades of sobering statistics about rising intermarriage rates, falling birthrates and their declining flocks, eventually Jewish clergy began talking about a future in which there would be "fewer Jews, but better Jews." Faced with sobering evidence that the number of priests was falling, along with statistics for Confession and weekly Mass, many Catholic leaders started talking about a future in which there would be "fewer Catholics, but better Catholics."

Now, according to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Protestant leaders should start preparing for a future in which there will be "fewer Protestants, but better Protestants."

For the first time, America lacks a Protestant majority, with only 48 percent of the population claiming ties to Protestant denominations. Meanwhile, the surging tide of Americans rejecting ties specific religious groups -- the so-called "Nones" -- appears to pose a new threat to the declining "seven sisters" of liberal Protestantism. These churches, in descending order by size, are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

This survey shows that "it's going to be much more difficult for mainline churches to turn things around simply by focusing on higher levels of commitment," said political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron, after a briefing at the annual meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association of America. This research was a cooperative effort with the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Part of the problem is that fewer Americans remain committed to supporting religious institutions and a high percentage of those who do seem to favor faiths that embrace the very doctrines and traditions the unaffiliated often reject. It also appears that young people who are rejecting traditional faiths -- during the past five years in particular -- are quitting organized religion altogether, rather than joining progressive institutions.

"It's going to be hard for something like a 'fewer Methodists, but better Methodists' approach to work because these mainline churches are already so small and there are so many of them," said Green. "The mainliners will have to find their niche. But who are they? What do they believe? Do they know?"

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Americans -- especially the young -- are now willing to say that they do not believe. The Pew Research Center numbers indicate that millions of Americans are no longer willing, as was common in the past, to remain lukewarm members of religious bodies in which they were raised. Other key survey findings include:

* One-fifth of the U.S. public -- a third of those under 30 -- are now religiously unaffiliated, for a total of 46 million Americans. The unaffiliated have risen from just over 15 percent of the adult population to nearly 20 percent in five years. More than 70 percent of the unaffiliated called themselves "nothing in particular," as opposed to being either atheists or agnostics.

* Many "Nones" fit the "spiritual, but not religious" label used by many researchers, with more than two-thirds -- including some self-proclaimed atheists and agnostics -- saying they believe in God or a "higher power." More than half claim a deep connection with nature.

* In 2007, 60 percent of those who said they "seldom or never" attend worship services continued to claim some tie to a religious tradition. But today, only 50 percent in this camp retain such a tie -- a 10 percent drop in only five years. At the same time, 88 percent of the "Nones" said they are not interested in considering future to ties to religious institutions, either liberal or conservative.

* The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters -- with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."

Fathers, sons & pews, Part II

When it comes to who fills the pews, every Sunday is Mother's Day in most mainstream American churches.

And what about Father's Day? That can be a touchy subject for pastors in an era in which men who religiously avoid church outnumber active churchmen roughly three to one. Worship just doesn't work for millions of ordinary guys.

"What churches are doing isn't getting the job done. Mom is having to take the kids to church because Dad doesn't want to go," said Marc Carrier, co-author, with his Cynthia, of "The Values-Driven Family."

"That leaves Mom in charge of the spiritual upbringing of the children, which means faith is a Mom thing and not a Dad thing. ... So why is little Johnny -- who is 25 and has his first child on the way, whether he's married or not -- never in church? The odds are that his father was never in church."

Church attendance among men had already fallen to 43 percent in 1992, according to the Barna Group, which specializes in researching trends among Evangelicals. Then that number crashed to 28 percent in 1996, the year before the Promise Keepers movement held its "Stand in the Gap" rally that drew a million or more men to the National Mall -- one of the largest gatherings of any kind in American history.

No one involved in national men's ministries believes that those stats have improved. That's one reason why a nondenominational coalition wants to hold a "Stand in the Gap 2007" rally on Oct. 6, hoping to gather 250,000 men at the Washington Monument and on the Ellipse, just south of the White House.

The American numbers are sobering, noted Carrier, but they are nowhere near as stunning as another set of statistics in an essay entitled "The Demographic Characteristics of the Linguistic and Religious Groups in Switzerland," published in 2000 in a volume covering trends in several European nations. The numbers that trouble traditionalists came from a 1994 survey in which the Swiss government tried to determine how religious practices are carried down from generation to generation.

Apparently, if a father and mother were both faithful churchgoers, 33 percent of their children followed their example, with another 41 percent attending on an irregular basis and only a quarter shunning church altogether.

But what happened if the father had little or no faith? If the father was semi-active and the mother was a faithful worshipper, only 3 percent of their children became active church members and 59 percent were irregular in their worship attendance -- with the rest lost to the church altogether.

If the father never went to church, while the mother was faithful, only 2 percent of the children became regular churchgoers and 37 percent were semi-active. Thus, more than 60 percent were lost.

This trend continued in other survey results, noted Carrier. The bottom line was clear. If a father didn't go to church, only one child in 50 became a faithful churchgoer -- no matter how strong the mother's faith.

"These numbers are old and they are from Switzerland, but they're the only numbers that anyone has," said Carrier. "Someone needs to find a way to do similar research in America to see if the same thing is happening here. This is shocking stuff."

At the height of the Promise Keepers movement, researchers did study one related trend in churches that began emphasizing ministry to men, said the Rev. Rick Kingham, president of the National Coalition of Men's Ministries, a network of 110 regional and national groups.

Surveys found that if a father made a decision to become a Christian, the rest of the family followed his example 93 percent of the time. If a mother made a similar decision, the rest of the family embraced the faith 17 percent of the time, he said.

"It seems that when a man takes that kind of spiritual stand it usually affects everyone else in the whole constellation around him, including his family and even other men that he knows," said Kingham, who is helping organize Stand in the Gap 2007.

No one wants to minimize the importance of faithful mothers, he said, but it's clear that "fathers play a unique and special role in helping their children develop a living faith -- especially their sons. ... There's no way to deny that."