To be clear, all religion is suffering at least some loss of adherents in the world today. The influence of Modernism, and the ever relentless march of Marxism, has definitely had an impact. However, things aren’t necessarily as bleak as they appear. While Christianity appears to be diminishing in the West, it’s simultaneously flourishing in Africa and parts of Asia. Those two continents have never seen so many conversions to the Christian faith. So while we see the signs of what appears to be a dying faith in one part of the world, it’s growing by leaps and bounds in another. We don’t readily see the growth here in the United States, so it’s outside of our everyday perception, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s happening. Americans, like must people, have a tendency to view the entire world the way we see our immediate surroundings. They call this the kind of worldview “Amerocentric.” It’s important that we don’t let our Amerocentric view dominate our understanding of the whole world, and most certainly not the Christian faith as a whole.
While Africa and Asia are going through a period of explosive growth in Christianity, it is very true that Europe, as well as North and South America, are experiencing a decline. We’ll focus on that now. Of course, atheists are quick to point out this decline, and triumphantly declare that their non-religious worldview is prevailing. That may be true in the West, bust as I pointed out above, it’s not true worldwide. So the question that remains is: why? Why is Christianity fading in the West, but not so much in other places, like Africa and Asia?
I’m afraid digging down into this answer may be something a little too deep for this essay, but I think we can look at some trends and make some basic conclusions based on numbers. The situation in Europe is a little different, and involves some circumstances that don’t currently exist in North America. So I’ll leave Europe out of this discussion for the most part. Instead, I’ll focus strictly on the United States, and from that I’ll let the reader extrapolate our findings to Europe and the rest of the West.
I have long said that in the United States, Christianity is not dying, but Protestantism is. The United States is a Protestant nation, and has been so ever since its founding and well before. Since the vast majority of Christianity in America is Protestant, any floundering of Protestantism will take on the appearance of a collapse of Christianity in general. Since the majority of Americans know Protestantism as their only experience of Christianity, they will attribute anything that happens to Protestantism as happening to Christianity as a whole. This would include a good number of American atheists. The majority of Americans (including atheists) see Catholicism as some quirky type of denomination, really no different than Protestantism other than appearance, so they just lump Catholicism in together with Evangelicalism, Methodism, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, etc. So what they see happening to the majority of Protestant denominations, they assume must be happening to Catholicism too, because (after all) “it’s just another brand of Christianity, right?”
They’re wrong, and the statistics prove it. Here we have a breakdown of major Protestant traditions in the United States by membership according to age…
The breakdown is revealing. According to the data, Protestantism is aging, and where we see the most significant aging is among the older Mainline Protestant denominations: LCMS, UMC, ECUSA, PCA, PCUSA, etc. Where we see the most healthy age distribution is among the newer Evangelical associations: Church of Christ, Community Church, Nondenominational Evangelical, Other Baptist, Other Pentecostal and the Pentecostal Church of God. This is important, because age of membership shows the direction a church is going.
An older average age shows a church is slowly dying. Whereas a younger average age show a church is growing and has a future. From this data alone, we can reasonably conclude that the days of the old Mainline Protestant denominations are numbered. They’re on their way out. The future of Protestantism is overwhelmingly Evangelical, and not only is this true in the United States, but we see echoes of it throughout the Western world. So, based on this data, we can reasonably presume that in thirty years, such things as Lutherans, Anglicans and Methodists will be hard to come by, at least in the United States, whereas Evangelicals will become the norm of Protestants in America.
Now, with that, let’s look at the age date for Catholicism in the United States…
This data from Pew Research Center tells us a number of things. The first it tells us is that like Protestantism, Catholicism is in decline in America. Of course, we already knew that. All of Christianity is in decline in the United States, but where does Catholicism rank in relation to the Protestants? Unfortunately, the age brackets are a little different in these two charts, but we can still get a general idea.
Overall, the US Catholic Church has a relatively healthy spread of an equal amount of people both above and below age 50. That’s good. It shows that there is hope — strong hope. The only thing that is concerning is that the 65+ age group is slightly larger than the 18-29 age group. It’s only a difference of 3% points, but we would like to see that number higher. In comparison to the general population, that puts the median age of Catholic at 49, which is 3 years older than the general population of 46. As long as this trend remains, Catholicism will continue to decline in percentage compared to the general US population. It’s s subtle trend, but a real trend nonetheless. The good news is it can still be reversed within a short amount of time if the right things are done soon.
Our Mainline Protestant friends are not so lucky. Even if they do all the right things, right now, they would not be able to reverse the trend fast enough to stop the total implosion of their denominations. Severe downsizing is inevitable for them now. Catholics had better be careful, or the same fate could await us. To prevent that, we’ll need to act sooner rather than later.
The age brackets in the chart is a little deceptive, so to simplify, we’re going to have to do a little guessing. In the Protestant age bracket, the youngest is 18-35. In the Catholic age bracket, the youngest is 18-29. So, to simplify for approximation, let’s just take the next bracket up on the Catholic chart and break off about 25% of that number. That would mean we take the 30-49 Catholic bracket, and add 25% of that (or 9%) to the younger bracket, creating an estimated Catholic 18-35 bracket, so as to match the Protestant chart.
This would put the estimated 18-35 Catholic bracket at about 26%. So when comparing apples to apples, by estimation, Catholics are doing better in this age bracket than all Mainstream Protestant denominations in the United States. Only the Evangelicals compare in the 18-35 age bracket. Based on that data, the future of American Christianity is going to be overwhelmingly Catholic and Evangelical in about thirty years.
That said, the number of non-religious people will increase in that same time period, producing a nation that is split about 50/50 between Christians and nonreligious, wherein the Christians will be divided primarily between Catholics and Evangelicals.
Now, this doesn’t mean the split will be even between Catholics and Evangelicals. It won’t. That’s because predicting trends like this can be tricky business, and past events don’t always equate to future events. Nevertheless, it can safely be said that while US Catholics are doing much better than Mainline Protestants, they’re only doing about the same as Evangelical Protestants, and that’s actually not too well. All three groups are losing ground to nonreligious secularism, but Mainline Protestants are losing the fastest. Since the United States was defined as primarily a Mainline Protestant nation just fifty years ago, it is no wonder that the general perception would be that America is rapidly losing its religion. It is.
In this graph, the Nondenominationals represent Evangelical churches…
Mainline Protestantism is dying in America, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to rescue it. Those who aren’t leaving the Mainline denominations for secularism, are heading over to the Nondenominational Evangelical churches, but not fast enough to outpace those leaving Protestantism entirely — for nothing. In the early 1970s, Mainline Protestants accounted for some 30% of all Christianity in the United States. Today, that number has been reduced to about 12%, which is roughly equal to about the number of Evangelicals in America.
Overall, the picture does not look so good for American Protestantism, and whatever affects American Protestantism affects American Christianity as a whole, because America is (and always was) a Protestant Nation. The following graph from Pew tells the whole story in a nutshell…
Using a side-by-side comparison, we can see that American Protestantism (both Mainline and Evangelical together) has seen a net loss of about 8% of the US population over just one decade between 2007 and 2018. Thank God for the Evangelical growth during that time, otherwise the Protestant loss would be much worse! However, as you can see, Catholics aren’t doing a whole lot better, experiencing a loss of about 4% of the US population at that time. Now to be fair, the US Catholic Church reports a net growth in the number of American Catholics over the same time period. That’s true, but what this chart shows us is that the US population is growing faster than the US Catholic Church. During this time period, from 2007-2018, the US population grew by about 8%.
So let’s take all this in. The US population grew by about 8% between 2007 and 2018. During that same time, all Protestants (Mainline and Evangelical) saw a loss of 8% of their US population share. That’s a net growth/loss of 0% — total stagnation! Stop! Let that sink in. Mainline Protestantism is collapsing so fast, that Evangelical Protestantism can barely keep up with the loss, balancing out the difference, so that the overall Protestant population in America stagnated with no net gain or loss, while the total American population continued to grow.
Now let’s take a look at the number of “nothing in particular,” meaning the non-religious Americans. It grew by about 5% during that same period. That means a good chunk (probably the vast majority) of those people came from Protestantism, and of those Protestants, mostly Mainline Protestants. Where did the other 3% of former Protestants go if not here? That’s a bit of a mystery. There was about a 1% growth in atheists during this time, as well about a 2-3% growth in agnostics. So maybe that’s where they went. Pew also showed, in another study, that 2% to 4% went Catholic. None of this really adds up to an exact amount. But it does give us some ideas of possibilities.
Now let’s look at the number of Catholics which lost 4% of their US population share, while the US population grew by 8%. That means Catholicism is declining at only half the rate of Protestantism, but all of this is relative to the growth of the US population. Catholics managed to capture 4% of that 8% US population growth — roughly half of it. Protestants caught nothing.
TRANSLATION: Catholicism is growing too slow, while Protestantism isn’t growing at all. American Catholicism is losing steam. While American Protestantism is totally stagnant — dead.
This takes us back to the second graph above, wherein I pointed out that the median age of Catholics is 49, whereas the median age of the US population is 46, three years younger. This means the US Catholic Church is losing ground in the area of young people. It’s not a catastrophic loss yet, but if not remedied soon, it will become one.
There is another problem, there is a growing discrepancy between American Protestants and Catholics in the area of devout faithfulness, and this is something that is a very bad omen for the US Catholic Church…
Among Protestants, those who take their religion seriously has remained unchanged from 27%, even through the overall percentage of Protestants fell from 63% to 50% between 1974 and 2013. Meanwhile, the number of Catholics remained roughly the same, at 26% to 25% of the American population in the same time period, but the number of Catholics who take their religion seriously plummeted from 12% to just 7%. Therein, I think, lies the key to everything.
It’s now time to interpret all this data.
When we look at Protestantism, what we see is a total and complete collapse, to the point of stagnation. In just a ten-year timeframe between 2007 to 2018 we see total stagnation — zero net growth — of all Protestantism in the United States. However, over a forty-year timeframe we see something much bigger — a 13% loss of their US population share. During that same time, there was a 34% growth in the US population. Which means American Protestantism began losing steam somewhere in the 1970s, in relation to overall population growth, but still managed to gain new members, declining year after year, until it reached the decade from 2007 to 2018 where it just puttered out and stopped. That was the decade Protestantism died in America. We will now begin to witness its gradual decay, as the biological result begins to unfold. Mainline Protestant denominations are already starting to grey. The average age of their members grows older with each passing year. Over the next few decades we will witness them selling off their churches to balance their books as their congregations get smaller as members die off. At best, Mainstream Protestantism has about three decades left — and that’s being optimistic.
Evangelicalism will survive quite a bit longer, and within about three decades, nearly all American Protestants will be some form of Evangelical (Baptist, Pentecostal and Nondenominational). However, in spite of Evangelicalism’s successful growth over the last five decades, it cannot grow fast enough to outpace the loss of Mainline Protestants. The overall number of Protestants in America will continue to decline at a fairly fast pace.
Catholicism is approximately in the same boat as Evangelicalism when it comes to its share of the US population. The US Catholic Church is growing, but it’s not growing fast enough, and that means it will also lose population share — roughly 4% every decade at the current rate of US population growth. This means the number of US Catholics will go up, in relation to US Protestants, but will continue to go down in relation to US population in total.
So when we look at overall performance of the three dominant forms of American Christianity, this is what we know…
- Mainstream Protestantism is imploding.
- Evangelical Protestantism is growing, but not fast enough to compensate for the loss of Mainstream Protestants.
- US Catholicism is still growing, but much slower than the US population.
Thus, the first question we must ask is WHY is Mainstream Protestantism imploding? To find the answer to that, we have to look at Mainstream Protestantism, and what changes they might have done in the last fifty years to explain this.
When it comes to liturgy, and methods of worship, there have been a few changes here and there but nothing that radical. Even in cases where Protestant liturgy was changed, accommodations were usually made for those who didn’t like the transition. It is quite normal in Mainline Protestant churches to find two forms of worship on the weekly service schedule: traditional and contemporary. So when it comes to worship, that’s a negative. Methods of worship have not changed enough to drive Mainline Protestants away, and accommodations were almost always made for anyone who didn’t like the subtle changes that may have occurred. As for those Mainline Protestants who wanted a more contemporary (Evangelical) worship style, they got it. Mainline denominations were happy to accommodate, and they did. Most Mainline Protestants now have a choice of worship style at their disposal. They can go to the old liturgical/hymnal service, or they can go to the new contemporary/praise-band service. All they have to do is choose between 9am or 11am on Sunday morning.
When it comes to pastoral approach, again there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of change, except for gender. In some churches, old Pastor Bob may have been replaced by young Pastor Suzie, but other than that Protestant pastors have been doing things pretty much the same way they have for the last hundred years. Mainline Protestants who don’t like female pastors can always go across town to another church of the same denomination, where they can worship with young Pastor John instead. So while this may have been an issue for some Mainline Protestants, it’s not so big of an issue that can’t be easily remedied by driving access town.
When it comes to doctrine, however, there has been a very big change in Mainline Protestant churches. A fairly large number have adopted very liberal approaches to the sexual issues of our time. Nearly all of them have adopted artificial birth control (contraception) as perfectly normal, even among married couples. Nearly all of them allow for divorce and remarriage without question. A growing number look the other way when it comes to fornication and cohabitation. A growing number are accepting homosexual relations and same-sex “marriage.” And a growing number are accepting transgenderism now. These are enormous changes that have occurred in Mainline Protestant denominations, starting in earnest during the 1970s and continuing to this day. Could this be the culprit behind their rapid decline? I think so.
In contrast, however, Evangelical Protestant churches have upheld traditional Protestant teaching on sexual issues, with the exception of contraception and divorce. Generally speaking, you’re not going to find approval among them for such things as: fornication, cohabitation, homosexuality, same-sex “marriage,” or transgenderism. You might find some quirky beliefs about Biblical prophecy and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but when it comes to Christian sexual ethics, it’s pretty straight and narrow. This might explain their relative success in Protestant America. Now for those who might be tempted to say that it’s the contemporary worship styles of Evangelicalism that made their success possible, I would like to point out what I said above. Mainline Protestants offered this as an option in many of their denominations, going all the way back to the 1970s. It didn’t seem to make a hill-of-beans difference. They collapsed anyway.
So now we know. The primary culprit behind the astounding collapse of Mainline Protestantism in the United States was its total surrender to the sexual ethics of the modern world (Modernism). Speaking from personal experience now, I knew this long before the actual statistics came out. Back when I was a Protestant, as far back as the 1990s, I remember friends of the family leaving their mainstream denominations (Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, etc.) for more conservative options (usually Evangelical) over issues related to the acceptance of sexual deviancy. I could have told you this was going on back in my 20s! Now, I have the statistics to prove it.
The damage done to American Protestantism is irreparable now. It will take nearly a century to undo the damage that has been done, and that’s only if all the bad players did an about-face and started doing the right thing right now. I don’t see that happening. So Evangelicalism will soon take the place of Mainline Protestantism as the new normal in the very near future, but that doesn’t mean it will ever see the same percentage share of the US population that Mainline Protestantism once had. When it comes to growth, Evangelicalism can’t keep up. The overall number of Protestants has stagnated, losing at least 8% of its US population share, and it will continue to do so every decade from now on.
Now we come to the final conclusion of this essay. What must Catholics do to shore-up our 4% net loss of the US population, start bringing in new converts beyond the 8% US population growth, and start getting Catholics to take their faith seriously again, so as to reduce as much as possible those leaving the Church?
I believe the answer is simple, but won’t appease either ideological side in Catholicism. So neither the Traditionalists nor the Modernist are going to be happy with this. As a former Protestant, having been raised in both Mainline and Evangelical denominations, and after having spent 24 years in the US Catholic Church, and having studied this issue both academically and through experience, I have come to the following conclusions.
To accomplish the above goals, the US Catholic Church must embrace the following…
- Doctrinal Orthodoxy is absolutely essential, especially on sexual matters. Bishops must crush any doctrinal dissent within their dioceses. Priests must not be afraid to preach authentic Catholic teaching from the pulpit, no matter who it may offend. Bishops must support those priests who do this. Mainline Protestantism has proved that nothing kills Christianity faster than playing loose and fast with doctrine. Once you start going against historic Church teachings, you’re inviting established members to leave, and you’re telling everyone outside your Church that you don’t take you religion all that seriously anymore. People will leave, and there won’t be enough new people coming in to replace them.
- Offer both traditional and contemporary worship in every parish. When I say traditional, I do mean TRADITIONAL. It doesn’t have to be a Traditional Latin Mass (1962 Missal), but is could be a New Mass (1970 Missal) with traditional Catholic hymns and chants from the pre-conciliar period, along with ad orietem posture for the priest, bells and incense, as well as communion administered on the tongue while kneeling. I cannot stress this enough. Minimally, the traditional method must be used in every parish, with the option for a contemporary method available if that’s what the parish wants. Traditional should be the norm. Contemporary should be allowed upon request. Why? Because all the internal data in the Catholic Church shows that young Catholics tend to prefer traditional modes of worship over contemporary methods. It’s the older Catholics who want the more contemporary worship. They should always be accommodated when they ask for it, but they should ask first. The youth wants traditional worship, and the youth is what the Church needs more than anything right now. When I say contemporary, I mean modern but not abusive or innovative with the liturgy. The GIRM must be followed, and respect MUST be shown for the Eucharist. However, contemporary music can be used, the priest can celebrate versus populum, but for the sake of the Eucharist, the priest should really try to get parishioners to receive on the tongue if they are willing.
- Pastoral care must be relevant to the youth, and by relevant that doesn’t mean compromise! Young people today want to be challenged by their religious faith, not coddled by it. They want to be taught but not patronized. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church, and YouCat make good strides in the right direction. However, this is not enough. The US Catholic Bishops, working together with modern media initiatives, must produce entertaining and engaging videos, as well as interactive website and smartphone applications. Young people today want audio/visual plus interactive experiences for learning, but when it comes to content, they’re looking for traditional orthodoxy that can be explained to them in ways that make sense. They’re not looking for ways to “bend the rules.” They’re looking for reasons why they should follow the rules. They don’t mind a little “fire and brimstone” if it’s accompanied by an equal amount of love and logic.
By following these three steps, I am absolutely certain the US Catholic Church can close the 4% gap in population share, and move on above that to a larger population share in the decades ahead. I’m also sure that we can start to get Catholics to take their faith seriously again, thus increasing the amount of membership retention as young Catholics grow up and grow old. I see no other way to accomplish this. We must learn from the mistakes of our Mainstream Protestant brethren, take a lesson from our Evangelical Protestant brethren, and then build upon it with what we can only offer — the authentic and full Christian faith Jesus Christ gave to his Catholic Church.
This article goes a long way to explaining why the moral anchors of the general populace have lost their effect over the past century and given way to a very self centered form of value judgement.
Fr. Bolin reprinted this article. You have hit the nail on the head. But I honestly believe until we get a new, more traditional wave of Bishops, what you describe must be done probably will be 10 to 15 years in the future. Of course the Traditional communities are already experiencing growth!! I am so glad to be a part of it!
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