Future of Religion
Not a Time of Slumping Religion: An Interview with Rodney Stark
What happened? Well, the sons and daughters of the people who used to go to the Methodist and Presbyterian churches left, and they went to the Nazarenes and to the Assemblies of God. There's just as much religion in Jamestown now, if not more, than when I was a kid. But who practices and who supplies it has changed radically. I could never have anticipated that when I left for college. I could never have anticipated it -- but it happened, and it happened that way all over the country.
As a matter of fact, one of the big changes is that the second-largest Protestant body in the United States today, second only to the Southern Baptists, is the non-denominational Evangelical Protestant churches. They hardly existed forty years ago, but today they probably have half as many members as the Southern Baptists. That's real growth, and it shows that the product matters and effort makes a great deal of difference. People in evangelical churches witness their faith and bring their friends and neighbors to church, and the people in liberal churches -- at least according to survey data -- don't witness and don't invite anybody into their church.
What about scholars and pollsters who have said that the younger generations are abandoning the evangelical churches?
George Barna scared every evangelical preacher in America a couple of years ago by coming out with the remarkable finding that people under 30 had left the church. There were screams and hollers and everybody was going to organize all of these campaigns to save the young people.
Nonsense. As long as there has been survey data, it has shown the same thing. Even back in the 1930s, it was true that people under thirty are less likely to go to church than people over 30. It's been true ever since.
Whenever you find a difference between two groups, you have two options. Does that difference reflect social change? That is to say, is it a generational effect? Or is it an aging effect? The answer in this case is that it's an aging effect. People leave home, they stop going to church, the sleep in on Sunday mornings. Then they get married, have children, and go back to church. Simple as that, and it's been going on for the fifty or sixty years that we know about.
So it's too bad when people do research they have no background in. I had seen that same data in the 1960s. You always find it, and it's not too surprising. There are many things that unmarried people do that they don't do when they're married and over 30. Sleeping in on Sunday morning is only one of them, and it's probably because they stay out later on Saturday nights than they do later in their lives.
You have written a great deal on Protestantism and Catholicism, but you also wrote a book on Mormonism (The Rise of Mormonism) that received a great deal of attention. You predicted a very rapid and sustained growth for Mormonism. Do you feel that Mormonism is continuing to become a world religion?
I don't know whether it has continued to grow as rapidly as before. For a long time, they sure were growing rapidly. And they were growing in accordance with some projections I had made -- projections that were not based on theoretical suppositions, but were simply straight-line projections of plausible growth rates, rates that the church was meeting.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.