January 31, 2012

Numbers and Reality

The Episcopal Church's premier number-crunchers have reported to the Executive Council on their view of the state of things. These reports almost always leave me wanting to ask a much more basic question: Can anyone provide a figure for overall church membership and attendance across all churches? What is the actual Churched Population and ChurchGoing Population in the US, over a period of years? If we knew that we might be able to see what the TEC "share" of those larger populations is, and if that share has changed markedly. The raw stats, though they attest to decline, seem to me to be singularly uninformative in addressing the cause of decline, and if the decline is due to a wider movement in the public rather than to something we in TEC are doing or failing to do.

The real reality must have context: context is reality. What I really long for is a Hans Rosling TED-style analysis. Anyone out there skilled in that area; it would be a lot more helpful than tables without relationship to a bigger picture.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


IT said...

it shouldn't be that hard. There have been a number of polls lately showing the distribution of people by faith group, subdivided by age and region, and decent graphics aren't that hard to do though I'm no Hans Rosling . I'm off on a hectic business trip but I will take a look when I get back.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, IT. I don't think it should be that hard, either, but it rarely seems to be presented.

I have a strong suspicion that we are looking at a strong social change from the norm of churchgoing in the 1950s, to a norm of non-churchgoing now -- across all denominations. )Don't you love the Rosling animations, though!)

Tim said...

Ask and ye shall receive.

Basic take-away is that self-identified Christians have declined from 86% to 76% since 1990 and that those who are leaving the faith are leaving formal religion and God in general.

There's a whole bunch more to tickle my statistical heart, but it's worth the read for yourself.

Erika Baker said...

I'm always surprised that individual churches don't do their own research, if only for pastoral reasons. There should really be a structured follow up of everyone who drops out of a congregation and people should be asked why they left, whether they'd consider coming again, whether they're now at a different church or whether their faith has changed altogether...
Very often people leave because of some personal hurt and a follow up would be good on that score alone.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Tim. I look fwd to reviewing it!

Erika, I usually do some informal follow-up if I don't already know the reason for an individual leaving. IN an urban setting with many churches to choose from it is often a matter of taste, or some personal issue with other parish members, or occasionally the clergy.

I think Tim's data source shows the general decline in church-going as part of a larger general shift away from religion as institutional (as opposed to personal spirituality, which seems to be on the rise, at least to judge by the book section at Barnes and Noble!)

Erika Baker said...

the question is why there is that shift away from religion as institutional, isn't it? The shift is made up of thousands of individuals each taking these decisions for their own personal reasons.
Would a structured follow up not help to discover those reasons?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

My suspicion, Erika, is that the shift has a number of causes, most of which have little to do with what churches do or don't do, but more in relation to a growing movement away from theism to spirituality on one side, and a shift away from centralizing institutions on the other. For instance, I think a major factor in the shift in churchgoing in the last half of the century for RCs was the Vatican II reappraisal of personal faith, and changing the teaching on the mortal sinfulness of missing Sunday or Holy Day worship. Once people were told they weren't going to Hell for missing mass, they started staying home! The sex scandals and intransigence on some social issues have dealt another blow to RC stability.

For Protestants, I think the shift away from "church as primary social milieu" had a major role, takingg effect in the US about a generation later than in Europe. (I'm old enough to remember the end of most of the Blue Laws in NY in the early 70s.)

For me the issue is not people leaving one church for another, but people who leave church altogether or who never think of going in the first place. Those are the numbers that are growing -- and I think the causes are cultural and social, exacerbated by bad church behavior.

The churches that tell people they will suffer damnation if they don't attend worship will naturally thrive -- but only with those to whom such a threat (or promise) is emotionally or personally attractive, and I suspect those numbers will continue to decrease. For other churches, we need to identify what it is people seek from worship, and bring to worship.

I suspect the churches in both categories will play a smaller and smaller role in the next generations -- particularly those churches that remain mired in prescientific world-views (though they will always have their adherents, too.)

Erika Baker said...

please don't get me wrong.
I also have my theories why people are leaving church in increasing numbers. And many of them co-incide with yours!
But, certainly for myself, they are just that - theories.
And I notice that people with different church political views and from different church traditions all have their own different theories. And they somehow match up with those church political views and traditions.

If we really want to have more solid foundations for our mission work - should we not start by simply asking people?

In my own church about 30% of those who were there every Sunday 10 years ago are no longer there. Most no longer got to any church.
Some never had a personal faith, they only went so their children could be exposed to faith at a young age. Others have different, very complex stories to tell.

But, you know, I only know that because I meet some of these people in other situations and, as it is, one gets chatting.

I'd love for my own very very limited and anecdotal "evidence" to be a little more structured and formalised.
Parish church by parish church.
Providing the basis for nationwide statistics if needed.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

It might be possible to undertake a more systematic survey along those lines, but I strongly suspect the actual results would match the anecdotal fairly well.

Personally, I'm just as glad that the church no longer provides the "social leg up" or the "pass card from hell" models that were, I think, prevalent 60 years ago. I think fewer people believe in or care about God any more -- and even less about church if they do believe in God. Not to sound too pessimistic, but I'm not sure there is much the church can do in the face of this -- except hold on and realize that some will find it appealing and relevant to them. But Christendom is dead, I think.

Tim said...


Regarding the RC church, I can tell you the fall-off is far more to do with the Retrenchment than Vatican II proper. An entire generation feel that they have been 'bait-and-switched' by the old men in Rome. I would recommend any one of Andrew Greeley's books on the subject (I think his newest is The Catholic Revolution:New Wine, Old Wineskins) for a more considered and in-depth analysis.

My own theories revolve around a few items which I don't believe have been fully fleshed in the discussion so far.

The first is that the church (and by that, I mean organized faith systems) holds less and less relevance in present western society. Religion is about relating to and supporting our fellow man and when formal faith systems don't address the problems facing people today, folks go elsewhere when they can.

Additionally, most faith systems in the west appear to keep the laity (and, arguably, some clergy) in a state of spiritual infantilism. That works when your laity are educationally ignorant, but adults in the west have been (to a greater or lesser degree) taught critical thinking. This leads to church leaders doing a lot of 'because I said so' hand-waving to explain outdated concepts and ancient traditions which hold little practical value today. That stuff may work when you were a child, but when you've put away your childish ways, what use is that (other than some misplaced nostalgia)?

Add in a healthy dose of well-earned post-Watergate/Jerry Falwell distrust of authority and you've got a nice recipe for folks who wander out in the woods rather than into a church if they wish to find the Almighty.


Br Richard Edward Helmer BSG said...

I feel we are at risk of making one of two fatal mistakes when confronted by "the numbers." One is to either wring our hands in institutional angst or throw them up and declare, "Oh, well!"

I for one am glad to shed the shackles and delusions of Christendom. But I think we also have to admit the way we in The Episcopal Church can be too coy about a vibrant faith by concealing it behind zeal for charitable service devoid of theological/spiritual context, or obsessing over institutional solutions to our failures to proclaim to one another and the wider world a vibrant and compelling faith.

Our parish is growing because our members feel inspired to invite neighbors and friends into the life we share in Christ. I wonder if we all labored to build on growing ministries in our locales if we would even need to worry about statistics at the meta-Church level?

Bill coats said...

Hi tobias. Once again I think you are too fatalistic about our decline. Yes society is less relgious, etc. etc. But things. First we were never a mass church hence the effort needed to hold our own or grow out little patch would not have been herculean. Second recall our decline was directly related to the drop in our birth rate, i.e. fewer people coming in"at the bottom" and a disinclination to do anything about it (no, there never was any great exodus from the church; simply more people dying). I conclude the time is ripe for effort. Richard Edwrd's place can do, then why can't others?
Bill Coats

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Tim, re the RC church I'm talking about the fall-off in the 60s and 70s. The recent second wave due to retrenchment / scandal, is another matter. The retrenchment represents exactly the wrong response to the earlier fall-off. The RCs lost, in Vat II, one of their big "selling points" if you will (not that I favor them) : universality and authority. VII challenged both of those by the intro of vernacular liturgy and loosening the hard grip of obedience slightly. The problem is that, generationally speaking, trying to restore those things now is precisely the wrong answer. Fact is, back then, many people actually wanted, or at least responded to, Father Knows Best. (The post war years saw a craving for "normalcy" and stability.) Recreating that won't bring people who don't like that back, though it may attract a new obedient flock. But there will be fewer, since the distrust of organizations is at high level.

RE, I agree. My point here is in attempting to have an accurate picture. Hadaway's stats I find almost completely unhelpful unless set in the larger context of "market share." Ultimately parishes grow because people want to be part of them -- and the reasons for that vary. I believe in promoting the healthy reasons.

Bill, I wish you would stop with the descriptive adjectives. I am not being "fatalistic." I am attempting to understand and describe the reality of the situation, which has nothing to do with fate, irreversible trends, or anything else. I am simply trying to address the fact that across all mainline denominations there has been a sharp decline in church membership and attendance since the 1950s, and to acknowledge that this is not "our doing" but the result of changes in society and the American cultural landscape. (See my comments on the RCC above.) I've never suggested there is nothing we can do -- but I'm saying that what we do has to address the reasons people stopped going to church, and that is in part due to a shift away from corporate religious models to individual spirituality, and a general growth in networks as opposed to organizations. The church still has much to offer, and there are plenty of ways to reach out to people and welcome and invite them --- but many people will not feel the need, and there is little one can do to "attract" someone whose taste, belief system, and so on, lies elsewhere. My own parish saw an increase in ASA last year, so please stop painting me as a defeatist!

Bill Coats said...

Now, now Tobias, don't get prickly on me. Recounting the so-called reasons young people don't go to church is at the same time a helpful insight and a discouragement to action. The question is not why they are not coming but rather why in those churches which are growing (however few)they are coming. For at that point your analysis must give way to newer, more helpful and more useful information. The fact little of this information has been gathered is in my view more important than societal analysis. Look at it this wa: if every parish in the USA grew by 10 persons a year we would make up lost ground very quickly.
Bill Coats

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Bill, I'm only at all prickly because you keep making what appear to me to be unhelpful, and unsubstantiated comments. I utterly disagree with your position that it is "discouraging" to have a clear sense of why church attendance is down. (You may be discouraged, but I am not, so stop blaming me for your feelings, or projecting them.) I regard what you seem to espouse as a head in the sand attitude. I think it is vital to understand why a larger portion of our society has no interest in church and religion than did 50 years ago. I'm not interested in the symptoms, or palliative care, but in finding the cause of the disease.

Meanwhile you seem to think we can make it all go away just by... what exactly? You talk about "newer, more helpful and useful information." Could you provide some. So far you seem to be spending all your time saying that understanding what is going on is irrelevant and if we would only do ______ then we'd grow. Instead of carping about the analysis, how about filling in the blank? (Needless to say I have my own ideas, and as I noted, my own parish is up in attendance and membership, so I must be doing something positive... what is your parish like?)