Friday, June 25, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: Religion by the Numbers

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Lyman Stone is a Lutheran believer who likes math. So he has built, in his words, “a complete annual dataset for every religious group in America as far back as I could get data”. That turns out to be 1925. If you want to know how your favorite denomination is doing demographically these days, especially compared to how it has done historically, Stone might well be the most informed guy on the block.

George Barna would be proud. Maybe. Assuming he doesn’t mind the competition.

Tom: You’ve mentioned before that you’re not a big stats guy, IC. What is it you don’t like about parsing data?

The Deeper Story

Immanuel Can: A couple of things. I find that numbers often conceal a deeper story; but that people tend to think a number always means something profound and indisputable — usually, whatever first impression the number left in their mind. But sometimes a number fudges together things that need to be distinct. For example, if we took all the denominations mentioned by this particular study, we would get a number; and we might think that number indicates whether or not “Christianity” is succeeding today. I think that would pretty obviously be deceptive … so I approach number tallying with caution.

Tom: Fair warning. And I agree we are wise to be cautious about anything we’re told these days. So with those caveats in mind, I’m still more than a little interested in the conclusions Mr. Stone has drawn from all the data he has assembled, because he’s all about assembling it with caution and being willing to adjust his conclusions as more data becomes available. He doesn’t seem to be serving a larger agenda, though of course appearances can be deceiving.

“Least Theologically Distinctive and Rigorous” is Code For What?

So here goes:

“Organized Christian religion remains more prevalent than at many times in American history. Most decline has occurred among the least theologically distinctive and rigorous denominations, and many theologically conservative denominations continue to grow. The fact that secularists feel free to more loudly proclaim their views does not mean Christianity in America is finished or defeated. Rather, it means that the debate over the soul of the nation is only now beginning.”

What grabs me most from his conclusions is that second sentence, because it’s borne out in the data repeatedly, and that’s this: when churches trend liberal, their ability to interest the world in Christ diminishes significantly. That’s a very interesting observation.

IC: Yes; and that one strikes me as true experientially as well. I have not witnessed much passion and enthusiasm among the liberal denominations. What rather seems to have happened is that it goes from “Our political or social cause is as important as our Christianity,” to “Our political or social cause is more important than Christianity,” and then to, “Why bother with the Christian bit at all?”

Something Worth Believing

Tom: Yeah, that sounds about right. For folks who are actually looking for a relationship with God and who don’t spend much time worrying about politics, that sort of emphasis has got to be a major turnoff. And there do exist one or two of these people, whose personal needs are so significant they don’t spend their days fussing about how to make society jump to their tune. They have already discovered they need a doctor, but the message they’re constantly getting from the liberal denominations is that they are pretty much okay just the way they are. To the sinner, that just doesn’t ring true.

But according to Mr. Stone’s stats, compared to liberal Churchianity, it’s the Orthodox churches that are trending upward, not the liberals. So are the Catholics and the conservative evangelicals. That’s not what we’re hearing elsewhere.

IC: Well, I think the churches that tell you there’s something worth believing and believing strongly are always likely to turn out more durable than the religiosity that says, “Have it whatever way you like.” After all, why bother believing anything in particular if it matters so little what you think or do?

A General Downward Trend

But what else did you notice about this statistical field, Tom?

Tom: There seems to be a general downward trend in Western society across all sorts of religious belief. It’s not abrupt or shockingly large, but it’s the sort of thing you might expect to have eventual consequences for the way we live, some of which we’re probably already seeing. That’s probably not news.

IC: No indeed. And it means that we see in statistics what we have all been experiencing in practice — that the average person to whom we will be speaking about our faith can be expected to have zero knowledge upon which we can count. And that means that more and more we’ll have to understand our own beliefs from the ground up.

Tom: That’s absolutely true.

Define “Member”

Another thing I found fascinating about Mr. Stone’s analysis is this:

“It turns out ‘membership’ has an unstable meaning. Some denominations have redefined membership at various times. Some denominations will only count adult membership, while others count kids too. Some only count regular attendees as members, some don’t. So the relationship between ‘adherency’ and ‘membership’ is unstable across denominations and time.”

This doesn’t surprise me and probably doesn’t surprise you, but it explains why we’ve often had such inadequate statistics available to us in connection with the churches in North America. Do numbers matter, IC?

IC: Well, this is yet another demonstration why numbers by themselves don’t tell us truth. We always have to know what the number included. What do you think “membership” ought to mean, Tom?

A Tough Metric

Tom: Well, “member” is a New Testament word, for sure, but it’s really found only in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4-5, where the apostle Paul is talking about individuals who have become part of the Church universal by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ and declaring allegiance to him publicly. But I don’t find anything in the NT about being a “member” of a local church, and certainly not a “member” of some denomination. We, and all the various aspects that belong to our humanity, are “members of Christ”. That’s it, that’s all.

So how do you measure that? I don’t know that you can.

IC: And then try to figure out how old a person has to be to make a genuine profession of faith, and whether or not individuals are sincere or nominal … that number gets awfully uncertain.

Tom: Indeed. And I can understand if numbers matter to someone like Mr. Stone or Mr. Barna, men who fellowship outside most of the denominations they are studying and whose interests lie in charting the broader trends within Christendom over periods of time. What I guess I can’t really understand is why denominations are so invested in counting their own members in the first place. Sounds awfully like something King David did once, and if I recall, it ended rather badly.

IC: Numbers make us think we have control of the situation. If we can make the number seem to go up, we feel we’ve improved things. If it goes down, we feel as if we’ve identified a problem and at least brought it within the range of our remedy. Neither may be true.

What do we learn from all this, Tom?

Salt, Faith and Success

Tom: Well, assuming the data set is even remotely accurate, I take three things out of it, all of which find a fair bit of support in our New Testaments. The first is that compromising truth in order to pander to the trends of our day doesn’t pay off for churches that do it (“If salt has lost its taste … it is no longer good for anything”).

IC: Imagine that: in the Church, truth matters.

Tom: The second is that the post-millennialist fantasy of effectively ‘Christianizing’ the world in preparation for the Lord’s return is looking decreasingly plausible (“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”).

IC: Well, at least we can say that it’s hard to imagine the (post)modern West reverting to religious earnestness. There’s apparently still rapid expansion of Christianity in the Developing World, and even in the secularized West a variety of idiosyncratic and irregular religiosities have been recently documented as growing rapidly. Apparently those who reject Christianity don’t always end up as atheists, but perhaps as believers in astrology, alien seeding, Gnosticism or pseudo-Buddhism — harder to track, but very “religious” in their own way. People who are really devoid of any such belief remain a tiny statistical minority, allegedly.

More interestingly, “non-denominational” and “unaffiliated” Christians are extremely hard to track accurately, because no formal records of their situation exist. Yet according to this research, they are perhaps the most important variable.

Tom: I found that intriguing too.

Third, there seems to be evidence that Christians do not really know what success looks like where our churches are concerned, and are ill-equipped to measure it (“Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes”).

IC: And that really throws a wrench into the church-consultancy industry, doesn’t it? If actual faithfulness and the true number of believers are things that only the Son of Man can accurately detect, it’s got to make you wonder what the wizards of numbers are managing to sell us.

Maybe we should put our money back in our pockets.

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