Crept out the back door

Crept out the back door July 3, 2010

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."

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