Crept out the back door

James Wolcott reads Ruy Teixeira on the demographics of American evangelicalism, noting this point in particular as it applies to the future electoral prospects of Sarah Palin:

White evangelical Protestants overall are roughly stable as a proportion
of the population.

Set aside electoral politics. I'm more interested in what this fact says about white evangelical Protestants.

Teixeira's statement is backed up by decades of research from Gallup, Barna, Christian Smith, Green/Guth/Kellstedt, etc. White evangelical Protestants have been stable as a proportion of the population for decades. That block — the evangelical subculture of born-again, fish-on-car, literal-interpretation, "pro-family and pro-life"/anti-gay and anti-abortion voting, CCM-listening, church-going patriotic Americans — is the same size it was 40 years ago.

And that's interesting, because the biggest defining characteristic of this subculture, more important than any of the cultural or political hallmarks listed above, is that it is evangelistic. The foremost concern of these evangelicals is evangelism — proclaiming the gospel and making converts and saving the unsaved. When that is your primary mission, it's not good news that your numbers have remained "roughly stable" throughout my lifetime.

America is home to hundreds, probably thousands, of evangelistic ministries — nonprofit parachurch agencies that exist, solely, to spread the gospel, which is to say to win converts. And they're all very successful. Just ask them. From the godfather of the bunch, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, on down to the smallest mendicant ministries, these groups and individuals invariably report anywhere from dozens to thousands of "souls won" every year.

How can we reconcile those claims with the actual demographic facts reported consistently over the decades? Either the massive numerical claims of all those evangelists are seriously exaggerated, or else there is an equally massive exodus in which the same number of people as they're bringing in through the front doors of the church are sneaking out the back.

I suspect, actually, it's a combination of both. I suspect that the numbers are exaggerated, but that whatever the actual numbers might be, attrition is keeping pace with addition.

I don't mean, necessarily, that these claims of quantitative evangelistic success are all deliberately exaggerated. But their score-keeping has no way, for example, of accounting for the serial conversions of chronic altar-call respondents, and I would guess those make up a much larger percentage than any of the professional evangelists would like to admit.

USA Today's religion columnist, Cathy Lynn Grossman, notes another way in which these evangelistic tallies can be inadvertently exaggerated:

The booming churches cited in every megachurch report haven't led to more believers, just believers switching churches for the newest facility, a better band, a bigger name preacher, perhaps.

Perhaps. Though some of those booming churches do seem to be places where "day by day evangelistic technique is adding to their number those who are being saved." Whatever you think of Rick Warren, his Saddleback Church really is huge and growing. Many of Saddleback's thousands of members are surely zero-sum transfers from other congregations, but probably not all of them.

Yet overall and over time, that zero-sum result of attrition matching addition has held true for America's evangelical subculture. "Roughly stable" in number and size for decades.

American evangelicals are aware of this, and even somewhat panicked by it. (They've got demographic studies looking ahead that paint an even bleaker picture for their future than Teixeira's studies paint for the future of the GOP.) But most of the response focuses on the addition side of the equation. I'm much more interested in the other part — why are so many people leaving?

The answer, I think, has to do with that verse from the second chapter of Acts that I misquote above. The bit about "adding to their number" comes at the end, as an apparent consequence, of a longer passage describing the early community:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Their numbers, it seems, were not "roughly stable."

  • http://www.nightkitchenseattle.com MadGastronomer, who is really just very tired

    Damn.

  • http://www.nightkitchenseattle.com MadGastronomer, who is really just very tired

    Drat.

  • http://www.agirlcalledraven.blogspot.com sarah

    @Will: What about a recipe for flourless raspberry cake? I could get behind that.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Irony:
    Many years ago, I went on a road trip out to the midwest. It was my first time out there, and I was struck by the ubiquity of “Jesus Saves” signs. I called my mom from a pay phone in indiana (“Mom, is it okay if I drive out to St. Louis this weekend? Would it change your answer if I told you I was already in Indiana?”) at the base of a billboard which said “Jesus Saves” on one side. The other side was an advertisement for the pornography store the billboard was in front of.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/syfr syfr

    Oooo – flourless orange cake? I am interested in your recipe and would like to subscribe to your cookbook?

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    The L: Ah yes, the Divine Mercy Jesus. If you go to any Catholic Church on the second or third Sunday after Easter, they play that picture up like crazy….
    It’s definitely a Catholic sign; not only is it very Sacred Heart-y, but Jesus’s hands are in iconic positions. One indicates the heart, and the other holds up two fingers. Hard to miss, especially for a gal who was raised Catholic.
    But it was the billboard’s placement at the entrance to the town rather than the clear denominational clues that really caught my attention. The Parish I grew up in just wasn’t that territorial, and the religious billboards of my youth tended to be more anti-Catholic than pro.
    Erl: Maybe this is a bit personal, especially from a lurker, but, CTY?
    I’m not sure what a CTY is. If you’re asking about the 3-week summer program I went to, it was called “Advance” and it was housed on the campus of the Louisiana School/Northwest University. Good times. Met my future husband there, too. Do not underestimate the social power of nerd camp!

  • Will Wildman

    sarah: I think I have one of those. Or had. Grr, I just realised how many cookbooks I left behind in the move. I am in need of the Complete Works of Nigella Lawson.
    Dav: I was going to write something like that, but I couldn’t make it un-clunky, so I hoped someone would do it better than I could. You did not disappoint. (“Mirage God and Frostbite God” would be a great Saturday morning cartoon, too.)

  • Bryan Feir

    @Dav:

    well-researched Atheist Belt that runs through the mild parts of the country all the way from DC to British Columbia.

    As somebody who had family living in Mission City in British Columbia, that nearly had me falling over laughing.

  • http://www.agirlcalledraven.blogspot.com sarah

    @Will: So sorry about losing cookbooks! I just moved, too, and brought along seven or so crates of books. We made three trips: one for books and clothes, one just for my bookshelf (those two were in the back of my roommate’s car), and then one for everything else, including all the big stuff (mattress, dresser), in a pickup truck.
    BTW, is Nigella Lawson any good? I tend not to cook from recipes, except when I’m baking, and most of the stuff I cook was learned from watching my mom (“just chop up a bunch of onions and garlic and throw them in”). But I’m always looking for new stuff to cook.
    @Nicole: I used to go to a church called Sacred Heart, and we had a Sacred Heart African-American Jesus statue outside.

  • Will Wildman

    So sorry about losing cookbooks! I just moved, too, and brought along seven or so crates of books. We made three trips: one for books and clothes, one just for my bookshelf (those two were in the back of my roommate’s car), and then one for everything else, including all the big stuff (mattress, dresser), in a pickup truck.

    I didn’t exactly lose them – they got left with my parents, who would probably have been fine with surrendering them to me, but I was already shipping a quarter-ton of books across two provinces and wanted to try to keep minimal. Cookbooks versus the entire Discworld collection? Welcome aboard, Sir Terry.

    BTW, is Nigella Lawson any good? I tend not to cook from recipes, except when I’m baking, and most of the stuff I cook was learned from watching my mom (“just chop up a bunch of onions and garlic and throw them in”). But I’m always looking for new stuff to cook.

    Well, one of Nigella’s cardinal rules is ‘when baking, measure everything; when cooking, measure nothing’, so it sounds like your philosophies match up pretty well. I know I’ve encountered ideas in her books that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, but my improvisational abilities are limited – give me a framework and I can adapt it however you like, but give me a blank slate and I become paralysed by choice. So recipes are kind of a necessity for me.
    As for whether her creations are any good, I can say only two things. One is a West Wing quote, when Leo insists he has to leave the office or he’s going to ‘miss his show’ – his assistant replies “It’s soft porn. No one needs to massage oil into a leg of lamb for that long.”
    The other is NOMNOMNOMNOMNOMNOMNOMNOMyougettheidea.

  • Rebecca

    I’ve never cooked anything from Nigella’s show (I am lazy about cooking – have an Indian cookbook I’ve been meaning to use for years but never used yet – don’t watch TV, and live in the US so I don’t think I get her show anyway), but I like to watch the clips on Youtube because she’s so cheerful! And gorgeous, obviously. Makes me happy.

  • hapax

    “Mirage God and Frostbite God” would be a great Saturday morning cartoon, too.
    Because I love you all, I am NOT linking to videos of the Heat Miser and Snow Miser songs.

  • http://www.agirlcalledraven.blogspot.com sarah

    [[Will: Well, one of Nigella's cardinal rules is 'when baking, measure everything; when cooking, measure nothing', so it sounds like your philosophies match up pretty well.]]
    Oh yes, that’s me. It’s family tradition, really–I once emailed my dad for his meatball recipe and he emailed back that “the meatball is art, not something that can passed on from generation to generation by email.”
    My first year out of college, I was a full-time volunteer in a house with other volunteers, and we got rather creative with our meals. I’d pick up a cookbook and try to cook whatever I opened to, but because of our limited budget, I’d do a lot of substitution and not-following-the-recipes. It usually worked out pretty well.
    [[The other is NOMNOMNOMNOMNOMNOMNOMNOMyougettheidea.]]
    I think I do. :)

  • Lonespark

    Go Team Frostbite!

  • Emcee

    Because I love you all, I am NOT linking to videos of the Heat Miser and Snow Miser songs.
    SOOO, I’m guessing I shouldn’t either, huh? (Cuz I did think about it…)

  • J

    *Once again, J, get the fuck off my side. Seriously, do you realize that you are trying to put a large segment of good people on par with holocaust deniers?*
    Wrong Robert Wright. This guy.
    *Oh, and not being religious doesn’t really make one compassionate, either.*
    Sweden
    Pakistan
    2010 BC
    2010 AD
    I win.

  • Erl

    Erl: Maybe this is a bit personal, especially from a lurker, but, CTY?
    I’m not sure what a CTY is. If you’re asking about the 3-week summer program I went to, it was called “Advance” and it was housed on the campus of the Louisiana School/Northwest University. Good times. Met my future husband there, too. Do not underestimate the social power of nerd camp!

    Yeah, CTY is another one. Probably the biggest/most widespread one nowadays, so I wondered. It has a variety of cultural markers, too, etc. etc. And I wouldn’t discount it either, though my romantic experience there was . . . less successful.

  • Erl

    Oh curses I cannot find how to fix this. Apologies, all.

  • Will Wildman

    J: If you’re going to prove (beyond reasonable doubt) that being not-religious makes you compassionate, you’re going to need to show that there are no non-compassionate non-religious people in the world. Scientifically, that still wouldn’t prove the 1:1 correlation, but it’d be a really compelling argument.
    Sadly, you exist, and as long as you keep that up, most of what you prove is that it is entirely possible for an absence of religion to result in a total jackass.

  • Will Wildman

    Heart!

    And they say it’s the loser power…

  • Emcee

    Wrong Robert Wright. This guy.
    In case you didn’t notice, I was pretty clear that I didn’t even look up the people you were talking about (as in, “I can’t speak to the other people, but…”). The way you stated it, it was pretty clear that you seem to think that anyone who says religion is compassionate is glossing over history, and trying to apologize or ignore all the bad things religion has done. Which again, fits in with your childish Angry Young Atheist mindset, but is patently untrue and obnoxious.
    Sweden
    Pakistan
    2010 BC
    2010 AD
    I win.

    Ooooh…cherry-picking history? Let’s see.
    Soviet Russia
    Great Britian
    J
    Fred, hapax, Jason, etc.
    Since I don’t really care about winning, just go play in traffic instead.

  • cyllan

    Silly italics away.

  • Erl

    Thank you, Will. If you ever need assistance with something on a slant, I’m your human.

  • Emcee

    First, please let me apologize to the rest of the board. J tends to push my buttons because I feel people like him give atheists a bad name. He fulfills every negative stereotype of an atheist there is, and it just pisses me off.
    Second, did anyone ever consider that J is a Manchurian Evangelical? Because his attitude has done more to turn me away from atheism than just about anything else, second only to viewing the religious beliefs of many on this board.

  • http://www.agirlcalledraven.blogspot.com sarah

    What was happening around 2010 BC, anyway? Just curious, so I googled and came up with a couple of things (which you should all take quite of few grains of salt, since this is the internet, after all):
    -It was the Middle Kingdom Period in Egypt (and there were improvements in the gov’t and military)
    -The Celts began spreading (in 2000)
    -The first zoo opened in China (also in 2000)
    -Minoan Bronze age culture on Crete develops hieroglyphic script and extensive palace complex at Knossos (also 2000)
    -Marduk was being worshipped as the chief god of Babylon (also 2000)
    -Aryans invaded the Indus Valley (also 2000)
    Obviously, a lot more happened than my three-minute Google search can account for. I particularly liked the zoo thing, though.

  • Will Wildman

    Second, did anyone ever consider that J is a Manchurian Evangelical? Because his attitude has done more to turn me away from atheism than just about anything else, second only to viewing the religious beliefs of many on this board.

    I actually suggested exactly that a couple of weeks ago. We’ve probably all wondered/hoped it once in a while. It’s the sort of desperate theory we come up with to explain such prolonged wilful idiocy and cognitive dissonance. Throw in the fact that it’s obvious antitheistwank, meant only to make himself feel better rather than change anyone’s mind (much like a lot of fundie conversion efforts) and the parallels are amazing.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Erl: Sorry to hear your time at the similar style of program was less than happy. I suspect it’s down to what year you go to such a program, and who else goes with you. I was lucky both at Advance and in high school to have students in my class worth keeping in touch with; had I been one year ahead or one year behind, I might not have had such luck. (That said, it was a good 3 or 4 more years, and one boyfriend and one or two unrequited crushes, before I realized quite how lucky I’d been. And it took him finding my email address while I was at college, which in 1995 was not nearly as easy as it is now let me tell you.)

    Will Wildman: If you’re going to prove (beyond reasonable doubt) that being not-religious makes you compassionate…”
    …then J should adopt a more compassionate posting style, shouldn’t he? (I know, I know, you got there eventually. But are you sure he’s worth two paragraphs when one sentence will do?)
    Seriously, J professing that atheism makes you compassionate is like, I dunno, like Glenn Beck professing that Christianity makes you humble. Embodying your the very best counterargument to your argument is not a successful debate technique.

  • Erl

    Erl: Sorry to hear your time at the similar style of program was less than happy.
    Oh, no, it was quite happy. I mean, aside from my difficulty making friends and adjusting to a new social scene in such a rapid time frame.
    I just didn’t find true love. Mostly awkward interminable cross-country semi-crushes.
    I also learned a heck of a lot, which was really more of the point.

  • Will Wildman

    (I know, I know, you got there eventually. But are you sure he’s worth two paragraphs when one sentence will do?)

    I’m verbose in my confrontations. …Also the rest of the time. In my defence, I was raised by a couple of chemistry professors who speak in 50-minute sentences.

  • Pius Thicknesse

    @Will Wildman: XD at the chemistry professors bit. :) (shout-out to one of my two professions :D )

  • http://www.lacoste4sale.com/lacoste-shoes-2010-1/ lacoste shoes 2010

    Where there is life, there is hope. I feel strongly that I can make it.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Erl: Oh, well then, in that case, sounds like a reasonably cool time, aside from the predictable awkwardness of being That Age. Huzzah? (I love the phrase “awkward cross-country semi-crush” and have been intimately familiar with it. I keep thinking I’m immune now that I’m in my 30s, but noooooo…)
    Will: Your family dinner times must have been epic. I would have slipped out the back door at the 25-minute mark. “I’m just… putting my dishes away. Still listening. Still… listening…” door slams

  • http://twitter.com/chi_mangetsu Chi, He of Infinite Humbility and Who By No Means Has a Duck on His Head

    Concern J:
    More likely he probably eats paint chips, but perhaps he’s just a MC. We believe we have one of those in a forum I frequent, a fellow who is pants-on-head Libertarian and frequently insane. We’re pretty sure she’s actually a hippie-chick named Moon Flower.
    blahblahblah…hallucinations…frostbite
    Mumblemumblemuble…ethylene…coughcoughoohpretty
    @sarah
    -The first zoo opened in China (also in 2000)
    I’ll have you know I squeed out loud at that.

  • Nick

    “Mr. Dolder, where do you think religions come from? At the very least, their leaders or founders experience just such a journey.”
    Popes of SubGenius? Bobby Henderson? Experienced a journey or just got bored one day? Ah, you’re going to tell me those aren’t “real” religions …
    L.Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith? Experienced a journey or scammed a lot of poor fools?
    People lie. They lie with good intentions or bad, but they still lie. How many religions are really some Luskentyrian bundle of well meaning lies? We know that Christian priests find it very difficult to stand up and say “I don’t believe. My doubts have been growing for some time now, and I have to accept that I am not a Christian”. How much harder then for a leader, perhaps one even hailed as a messiah. “I was mistaken, that wasn’t a message from God, I have no further revelation to offer you except don’t eat cheese just before bed”.

  • http://www.nikeairjordan.cc/air-jordan--1--i-1/ Jordan 1

    ah i loved reading that post! sounds gorgeous, can’t wait until tomorrow!

  • http://www.buyonline-rx.com/ Buy Online Rx

    Yum Yum So so very very cute! I wish could have been there…You booth turned out so darling. I’ll be in touch….I’m glad Elliot made it to market again…it’s so good to see he’s still around, love the tux.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X