According to Pew Research:
The United States has a religious makeup that’s broadly similar to that of many Western European countries. Most people on both sides of the Atlantic say they are Christian, for example. At the same time, substantial shares in the U.S. and Europe say they are religiously unaffiliated: Roughly a quarter of the American adult population identify as “nones” (23%), similar to the shares in Germany (24%), the United Kingdom (23%) and other Western European countries.
At that point, however, the similarities end: U.S. adults – both Christian and unaffiliated – are considerably more religious than their European counterparts by a variety of other measures, according to an analysis of data from Pew Research Center’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study in the U.S. and a 2017 survey of Western Europeans. For instance, about two-thirds of U.S. Christians pray daily (68%), compared with a median of just 18% of Christians across 15 surveyed countries in Europe, including 6% in Britain, 9% in Germany, 12% in Denmark and 38% in the Netherlands.
Similarly, 27% of religious “nones” in the U.S. – those who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – believe in God with absolute certainty. Across the surveyed nations in Western Europe, however, the share of religiously unaffiliated who believe in God with absolute certainty ranges from just 1% in Austria, France, Germany and the UK to 12% in Portugal, with a regional median of 3%.
At the other end of the spectrum, Americans are much less likely than Western Europeans to say they do not believe in a higher power of any kind (10% vs. a median of 26%).
U.S. adults are also much more likely than Europeans to believe in three traits that are commonly associated with Christian notions of God: that God “loves all people regardless of their faults,” “knows everything that goes on in the world,” and “has the power to direct or change everything that goes on in the world.” About six-in-ten Americans (61%) say that God is all-powerful, for instance, while the median in Western Europe on this question is 25%. And in Denmark and Sweden, only 13% of adults say this.
Recently I compared the demise of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) with the continued vitality of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Demographics play their part, but in the end, movements make their history depending on their core identity. The PCUSA has chosen decline and decay, the Southern Baptists have chosen differently. Here are five elements I can observe (from a distance) that characterize the SBC:
1. The authority of Scripture
If there’s one thing that distinguishes Southern Baptists from the Protestant mainline, it’s their belief in the authority of the Bible. Now belief must be backed up by obedience, but there is no hope for a movement that won't come under the authority of Scripture.
Movements are born and renewed by the Word and Spirit.
2. The primary missionary task
At the heart of the SBC's mission is the spread of the gospel, the making of disciples, and the multiplication of churches. This is the reason for their existence. They may not always live up to it, but the Great Commission is central to their identity.
3. The independence of the local church
The SBC is a Convention of independent churches, not a centrally governed denomination. Every movement institutionalizes. But it’s a lot harder to institutionalize if the local church owns the property, governs and finances itself, and has the authority and responsibility to plant new churches and send out missionaries. Centralize those activities and your future is bureaucracy and decline.
4. The priesthood of every believer
A professional clergy class is the end of any dynamic movement. The Southern Baptists have a long history of empowering ordinary people to share the gospel, make disciples and plant churches. Their explosive growth on the US frontier was achieved long before they built their first seminary. Again, they may not always live up to the ideal, but it’s who they are and a key to their future.
5. Descendants that can't be counted
Historian, Philip Jenkins wrote an article on how Baptists are being left behind other Protestant traditions in the explosive growth of the church in the developing world. He's wrong.
What he doesn’t know is SBC missionaries don’t plant SBC churches, they plant churches. Those churches will share the same convictions outlined above. But they are indigenous churches. The churches don’t belong to the SBC. Now they are becoming partners in fulfilling the Great Commission.
For a generation, SBC missionaries have been at the forefront of pioneering church planting movements around the world. Now many former SBC missionaries are leading the way in a host of other mission agencies that are catalysts for indigenous church planting movements.
The SBC has children and grandchildren all over the world, we just can't name or count them.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has released a new hymn for its 223rd General Assembly meeting in St Louis, Missouri this week (June 16-23). The hymn is entitled “Draw the Welcome Circle Wider.” But statistics released ahead of the gathering reveal a denomination struggling to retain it’s aging, mostly white (91%), membership.
In 2017 the PCUSA lost 67,714 members and a net 147 congregations.
2017 was not an aberration, but a continuation of long-term decline that dates back to the 1960s and shows no sign of change.
Issues to be discussed at the Assembly include:
- Seeking God’s Peace Through Nuclear Disarmament
- A call to the denomination to divest from investing in the fossil-fuel industry
- The creation of an Advocacy Committee for LGBTQ+ Concerns
- A number of anti-Israeli measures
In Dallas last week the Southern Baptists held their annual Convention amidst some controversy and some signs of decline. Membership was down for the 11th year in a row. Baptisms were down.
But Southern Baptist were still baptized a quarter of a million people in 2017. The number of SBC churches grew for the 19th year. More important than the membership, weekly attendance grew from 5.20 million to 5.32 million in 2017. Congregations gave over $1 billion to missions.
Compared to the PCUSA the Southern Baptists are doing ok. The question is Why?