3 years ago: Crept out the back door

3 years ago: Crept out the back door July 3, 2013

July 3, 2010, on this blog: Crept out the back door

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.

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  • Daniel

    What reason is there to go once you’ve said the magic words? Staying in a faith is for Catholics.

  • aunursa

    Belief. It’s not enough to “say the magic words.” In order to be saved, one must believe. If one no longer believes in the faith, then that’s a reason to leave. But a person who never believed in the first place was never legitimately part of the faith.

    It’s possible that the numbers are inflated by those who professed faith but never actually believed. I would expect that the total figures of saved souls does not account for that possibility.

  • I think it’s kind of like how tent revivalism used to work: Some guy would come into town, preach, a whole bunch of people would get saved, and then six months later it’s the same story all over again.

    For some people it’s more about the experience and ceremony than the actual day to day work of being a particular kind of (insert faith here).

  • Gordon

    Whatever happened to “once saved always saved”?

  • FearlessSon

    Altemeyer’s data had an interesting note on this, about how overall rates of religiousosity were decreasing, except for fundamentalists Christians, and that was due almost entirely to aggressive conversion work. They were bleeding “home grown” membership at a faster rate than most other religions, they needed the aggressive conversion just to maintain their numbers:

    Generally they did; about two-thirds of those raised in a Christian denomination still followed the path trod by their ancestors (e.g., raised a Lutheran, still a Lutheran)–although they were not necessarily active members. (Instead they were the “Stay Away Saints,” as some evangelical leaders call them.) But that means about a third of them had disconnected themselves from their home religion. Some had converted to another, but most of them had become Nones, (e.g., raised a Lutheran, now not anything), which was the category that grew the most–almost 300%!–in my studies from where it had started.

    The only other group besides the Nones that ended up in the black, with more members than it started out with, were the Protestant fundamentalists (Baptists, Pentecostals, etcetera), and they only gained 18%. Furthermore, they did it through conversions, because almost half of the parents who had been raised in these denominations had left them by the time they reached middle age. (It was one of the poorer “retention” records among the various religions.)

    The “departed” departed in all directions, but mostly they went to more liberal denominations, or (especially) they too ended up Nones. The fundamentalists who remained had to proselytize to avoid the fate of all the other denominations: i.e., an appreciable net loss. If they had not won lots of converts, they too would have shrunk, because they had a lot of trouble holding onto their own sons and daughters.

  • Freida

    The mills of god grind slowly but they grind exceeding small.