Growing Christian fringe groups unlikely to stem U.S. secular tide

Growing Christian fringe groups unlikely to stem U.S. secular tide February 27, 2020

Here’s a good example of how bias skews reason.

church decline pentecostal nones secularism
Two congregants dance joyously at a church service outside the The House of the Lord Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn, New York, in 2012. (Paul Stein, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The perpetrator is an op-ed writer in the prestigious conservative daily The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), and her bias is that Christianity is good for the nation.

That such an article would resonate in a conservative American journal is not surprising, because the WSJ caters to conservative readers, who are largely conservative Christians, according to demographic data. It is thus understandable that the article would skew toward optimistically believing — and proclaiming — that Christian faith remains robust in the nation, rather than fairly characterizing its more consequential, decades-long slide in the direction of oblivion.

This bias is immediately evident in the article’s headline and subhead: “Thank God, American Churches Are Dying: As thousands close across the U.S., lively new congregations are taking their place.” (If you want to access this article online, note that it’s a subscription-only journal with a paywall.)

While acknowledging widespread, disappointing closures of Christian churches in the U.S., the WSJ piece labors to put a happy face on it.

Congregational demise is troubling, but underreported data suggest that fear of a secularizing America may be overwrought,” explained WSJ reporter Ericka Andersen, who hopefully added, “A religious renewal could be on the horizon.

Andersen reports that while traditional denominational Christian congregations (e.g., Methodist, Baptist, Catholic and Episcopal) have “been on a downward slope for years,” nondenominational evangelical church groups are surging in numbers.

“Pew Research data show a similar trend continuing to the present, with steep declines among mainline churches as evangelical ones keep popping up. And 42% of these new congregations report growing attendance, data from Lifeway Research shows,” Andersen reported, noting that the number of such churches grew from 54,000 in 1998 to 84,000 in 2012.

She says this growth is due in large part to “church multiplication” — an “aggressive” campaign by these nondenominational evangelicals to establish new church groups. In 2015, only 4 percent of churches were multiplying, she reported, citing research of faith organization Exponential by Lifeway, but last year it was 7 percent. If such growth continues (each percentage point represents about 3,000 churches), it “will change the spiritual landscape,” according to Dave Ferguson, president of the church leadership organization Exponential.

In her piece, Andersen wrote that multiplication is not just about growing congregations but creating “fresh churches” to replace old, obsolete ones “armed with modern ideas to attract and tend to a new generation of believers, can be exactly what a community needs.”

By “fresh,” considering the fastest growing groups are charismatic and Pentecostal — the mystical, “speaking in tongues” faith crowd — she must mean “fringe.”

And it’s not just in America. The shift of churchgoing worldwide is trending charismatic, particularly in South America, Africa and India. People are leaving the buttoned-down denominations of old, with staid sermons and quiet worship for more unbridled, let-it-all-hang-out spiritual devotion. It’s much like the current political milieu in the U.S., where roughly half the country supports a profane, ungodly, amoral president, who tut-tuts at the modest virtues of character and decency that have long characterized American life. Now, people want visceral emotion, multiple epiphanies, a show.

All this is not to agree that Christianity is somehow ascendant in America because outlier church groups are growing. In fact, it should be cause for worry, because that’s the space where dangerous cults emerge. We could be looking at a surge in Branch Davidian-, People’s Temple- and Heaven’s Gate-styled charismatic groups. As you may recall, these groups, untethered by the constraining moral and human rules governing mainstream churches, ended up killing a lot of innocent people, including many, many children.

Still, the WSJ article oozed spiritual hope for the new arrivals.

“Those with denominational affinity will be sad to see a certain kind of church fall away,” Anderson wrote in WSJ. “But the success of new models shows significant groups of people looking for ways to live faithfully, albeit in a less structured way. Could this really signify a religious awakening?

Andersen was also hopeful about research showing some “Generation Y” millennials (born roughly from the early 1980s to the early 2000s), members of the nation’s currently least religious group, return to churchgoing after they get married and have kids. She also points out that Hispanics are largely Christian, conending that Hispanic immigration is therefore a plus for faith.

“As the Hispanic share of the U.S. population grow,” Andersen wrote, “the percentage of practicing Christians should rise as well.”

However, it’s reasonable also to suspect that church-returning millennials will before long leave faith again, when their children leave home or they are reminded of the doubts that led them to leave in the first place. And immigrant Hispanics can be expected, as new Americans down the generations inevitably do, to eventually by cultural osmosis acquire the secular attitudes that many citizens share. Currently, about a quarter of the U.S. population, known as “nones,” chooses to be unaffiliated with any religion or spiritual tradition, including a large proportion of atheists and agnostics.

“Nones” are among the fastest growing demographics and are now larger in numbers than any Christian denomination.

We should keep in mind that the spiritual trend in American has been sharply trending toward secularism for decades, as happened throughout Western Europe in preceding decades and continues still. Western Europe today is a decidedly nonreligious realm, as data relentlessly show America will likely soon be.

Which is a good thing, considering that the Founding Fathers envisioned a purely secular government. Perhaps one day the government and its people will match.

Clearly, the WSJ would like the opposite outcome where a faithful populace will be ruled not by manmade law but the Bible.

One can always hope, I suppose.

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