No, evangelicalism isn’t in decline

May 13, 2015

In his famous review in the philosophy journal Mind, Sir Peter Medawar said of the work of paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that, “its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.” Something similar could be said for Jonathan Merritt’s latest column on how evangelicals have “misread America’s religious landscape.” Merritt isn’t intentionally trying to mislead his readers; he’s probably just gone to great pains to deceive himself first.

Merritt’s column is based on an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center that reveals that certain sectors of Christianity—particularly Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches—continue to shrink while the number of evangelicals in America is growing. But because the results do not fit with Merritt’s predetermined narrative he attempts to shift the metrics of what constitutes “growth.”

“Yes, mainline denominations remain in sharp decline, and yes, evangelicals have fared slightly better overall.” Merritt claims that, “Yet many evangelical bodies have begun shrinking as a share of the population as well.”

Until recently, the claim made by critics like Merritt was that people were fleeing evangelicalism. But survey after survey has proven that idea to be false, and that the number of evangelicals has in fact been increasing. The reality is that the number of evangelicals in America has been growing since 1972. That requires a shifting of the goalpost in order to save their preconceptions. “Okay, evangelicalism is growing,” they now admit, “but they aren’t increasing as a percentage of the total population.”

That’s true, but so what? As the Pew survey shows, the evangelical share of the population has remained comparatively stable. From 2007 to 2015 the percentage of evangelicals changed slightly from 26.3 percent to 25.4 percent of the population, while Mainline and Catholic groups declined by more than 3 percent each.

If we use the “percentage of the population” as a metric then the current rate of decline for evangelicals could continue for 95 years before we’d reach the same percentage (14.7 percent) that the Mainline churches hold today. By that time—in the year 2110—Mainline churches would have (assuming they continued to decline at their current rate) ceased to exist for more than 60 years.

But maybe when Merritt refers to “evangelical bodies” he means individual denominations, rather than evangelicalism as a whole.

If we look at the short-term (year-to-year) trends, we may be able to detect a decline in some groups, especially in large denominations. For instance, Merritt mentions the Southern Baptist Convention—the largest Protestant denomination in America—declined “as a percentage of the population” by 1.5 percent. Yet as Merritt notes,

During this same time period, among mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church declined by 1.5 percent, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declined by 0.6 percent, the Presbyterian Church (USA) declined by 0.2 percent, the United Church of Christ declined by only 0.1 percent, and the American Baptist Churches USA actually grew by 0.3 percent.

This certainly sounds bad for the Baptists until you remember that the SBC comprises, by itself, 11 percent of all Protestants in America, while the four denominations Merritt mentions comprise only 15 percent of Protestantism combined. Additionally, 5.3 percent of all U.S. adults belong to the SBC—again more than all four of those denominations combined. It was inevitable that the phenomenal growth the SBC has experienced since the mid-1960s would slow or plateau. But it would be reading too much into the data to assume that after a 45 percent increase in SBC membership over 50 years, a 1.5 percent shift over seven years would be a sign of rapid decline.

Also, in the case of the SBC and other conservative denominations, the trend seems to be that if churches are losing members it is mostly to other conservative denominations, especially non-denominational ones. (Many non-denominational churches are all but indistinguishable from SBC churches in theology and ecclesiology). As Pew notes, the most significant growth in Protestantism is in the increase of nondenominational churches, which grew from 4.5 percent to 6.2 percent of all U.S. adults.

Merritt also points to the decline in Catholic churches to show how “conservatives” churches aren’t growing:

America’s largest “denomination”—the Roman Catholic Church—further challenges the notions conservatives have been peddling. From prohibitions on contraception to resisting same-sex marriage, no body has held the traditional line more than Roman Catholics. Yet between 2007 and 2014, Catholics declined by 3.1 percent as a share of the population.

The fact that Merritt believes American Catholicism is generally conservative shows a lack of understanding of that “denomination” internal battles. While there isn’t space in this article to detail the liberalism of modern Catholicism, it should be noted that few traditional, mass-attending Catholics in America would agree that “no body has held the traditional line more than Roman Catholics.”

Merritt goes on to add, “Simply put, almost all of America’s largest Protestant denominations are declining, regardless of political or theological alignment.” This claim simply can’t be supported by the data.

Since the 1960s almost all conservative evangelical denominations have increased in number while liberal Mainline churches have decreased. Now let’s look at a few of the primary non-Mainline denominations, every one of which has increased in membership since the mid-1960s.

Church of God in Christ: In 1965, the CoG had 425,000 members. In 2012, the membership was 5,499,875, an increase of 1,194 percent.

Presbyterian Church in America: In 1973, the PCA had 41,232 members. In 2013, the membership was 367,033, an increase of 790 percent. (Note: The Presbyterian Church in America was founded in 1973 by conservative members of the Presbyterian Church in the United States who rejected that church's merger with the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.)

Evangelical Free Church of America: In 1965, the EFCA had 43,851 members. In 2013, the membership was 372,321 , an increase of 749 percent.

Assemblies of God: In 1965, the AoG had 572,123 members. In 2013, the membership was 3,030,944, an increase of 430 percent.

Southern Baptist Convention: In 1965, the SBC had 10,770,573 members. In 2013, the membership was 15,735,640, an increase of 46 percent.

Merritt adds that, “Conservatism does not necessarily lead to growth, it seems, and liberalism does not necessarily lead to decline.” If that were true then why do conservative denominations continue to grow significantly while almost every liberal denomination has declined rapidly? Because he can’t refute that data, he tries to explain it away:

According to Mike Hout, a sociologist at New York University, evangelicals who want to blame the decline of mainline Protestantism on liberalism are simply not paying attention. He says that population data has always indicated that the mainline decline was mostly attributable to birthrates, a notion he published in an article in the American Journal of Sociology.

“Seventy percent of mainline decline as it was known in those days was due to the fact that evangelical women were having one more child on average than women in the mainline tradition,” Hout says. “This trend prevailed until right around the turn of the [21st] century.”

Merritt has an odd habit of providing “evidence” that refutes his own claim. Why do evangelical woman have more babies than women in Mainline churches? Because of the pro-natalist/anti-abortion convictions of conservative evangelicalism. What other explanation is there? If it were not based on religious beliefs, then why would there be a difference between the two groups of American women?

Merritt also trots out the tired old claim that the rise of the “Christian right” has caused people to flee conservative evangelical churches: “As conservative bodies became more partisan, members who couldn’t stomach the political agenda waved goodbye.” He also quotes a source that says,

“Among those who disaffiliated during this period, most were raised in evangelical denominations but were centrist to leftist politically,” Hout says.

Again, if that were true, then why would evangelicalism be increasing in total numbers? And why aren’t the Mainline churches which are presumable “centrist to leftist politically”, gaining those who are leaving conservative churches?

The reality is that 65 percent of adults raised as evangelicals still identify with their childhood religion, and 1.2 people join evangelicalism for every one that leaves. Additionally, more Americans who self-identify as gay or lesbian (a group that tends to be politically liberal) identify as evangelical (13 percent) than mainline (11 percent), atheist (eight percent) or agnostic (nine percent).

In an odd shift, Merritt claims that it really doesn’t matter anyway about the Mainline churches since they aren’t the point:

Triumphalist evangelicals have missed the point. The biggest threat to evangelicals is not some form of liberal faith, but rather faithlessness itself. Most people aren’t leaving evangelicalism for more liberal expressions, but rather for nothing at all.

While conservative Christians were crusading against their more liberal brothers and sisters in the mainline, the real growth has been in neither camp—the share of religiously unaffiliated individuals in America skyrocketed by a whopping 6.7 percent.

Rather than taking pot shots at more liberal strains of Christianity, evangelicals would do well to focus on the threat that all Christians are now facing: the growing number of people who are apathetic or antagonistic to the claims of Christianity.

On almost every point of fact, Merritt is simply wrong. There are more evangelicals in America today than at any time in our nation’s history. Conservative denominations have continued to grow for the past fifty years while liberal denominations have declined. Currently, 1 in 5 Americans is an evangelical, including 22 percent of older Millenials and 19 percent of younger Millenials.

Acknowledging this reality, however, should not blind us to the challenges faced by evangelicals in America. Merritt is correct that a key concern is the “growing number of people who are apathetic or antagonistic to the claims of Christianity.” But that should not lead us to conclude that is evangelicalism that must change. We shouldn’t abandon the gospel or water it down to make it more palatable. That is true also for the social and political ramifications. Staying faithful to the Bible means that evangelicals will never be accepting of two grooms or killing babies in the womb. We can’t pretend people can become Christians and reject the ethical implications of the gospel.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24