The future of the church

September 1st, 2011 in Church. Tags: , , ,

The church as an institution is losing ground in the western world. Most of us are pretty familiar with that. But what is its future? And what is the future of belief in God?

There are some interesting statistics on all this.

Church attendance in the western world

The statistics are complex, because (a) people often report they attend church more often than they actually do (especially in the US), and (b) different definitions and statistics can be used (e.g. attend weekly, attend monthly, etc). But broadly, surveys show that:

  • Almost ten years ago, church attendance around the world was reported to vary from more than 80% in Nigeria and Ireland down to only 2-3% in Russia and Japan. In the western world, attendances were lowest (mostly around 5%) in the northern European countries and highest in Ireland. This would have been lower than a century ago in most countries.
  • In the US, church attendance dropped only slightly over the past few decades, and appears now to have levelled out at about 40-45% (based on what people say), although only about 25% are attending on any particular Sunday.
  • In Great Britain, about half the population attended church regularly 50 years ago, but recent surveys show that only about 10% attend weekly and 15% at least monthly. Attendance is higher in Northern Ireland and lower in England
  • Here in Australia, church attendance has been dropping for decades, and this may still be continuing. Studies a decade ago show about a 7% drop in attendance over a 5 year period, leaving less than 10% of Aussies attending weekly, and perhaps double that number attending at least monthly.
  • So-called “born again” christians are more likely to attend church than others. In most cases, attendances are declining fastest in the more traditional denominations, and growing slightly in the more evangelical and Pentecostal denominations.

Future projections

Some university researchers have applied mathematical models of the dynamics of human social activity to the statistics on church attendance in 85 regions around the world, and found that in 9 regions (mainly European, but including Australia, New Zealand and Canada) the models predict that religious affiliation (i.e. church membership) will all but die out in the future. Naturally most reports on the research focused on this predicted disappearance of religion.

Review the actual paper makes some things clearer, but not others.

  • The paper seems to model the growth in non-affiliation rather than the decline in affiliation. The report says: “People claiming no religious affiliation constitute the fastest-growing religious minority in many countries throughout the world”.
  • The model is based on the assumptions that (a) there are only two groups within a culture (affiliated and non-affiliated), (b) the attractiveness of each of these groups is greater if the group is larger and/or it is seen as offering social “utility” (i.e. the benefits that can be obtained by being a member), and (c) people will change belief if one group becomes more attractive than the other. Thus the report says that in these nine societies “the perceived utility of religious non-affiliation is greater than that of adhering to a religion, and therefore predicts continued growth of non-affiliation, tending toward the disappearance of religion.”
  • The paper doesn’t use data for many whole countries, as some reports infer, but mostly certain regions within countries.
  • Descriptive results are only given for the nine regions, not for the other 76, and graphs are only provided for four regions.
  • The time scale of this predicted change is not stated (they are interested in the result, not the timing) but can be gleaned from graphs for the four regions. My rough extrapolation indicates the models predict 100% non-affiliation round about the year 2100 for all 4 regions (the autonomous Aland islands region of Finland, the Schwyz Canton in Switzerland, Vienna Province in Austria, and the Netherlands). These are very rough estimates of graphs extrapolated from as low as 5%.

Pollster George Barna predicted several years ago that in the US, by about 2025, “only about one-third of the population will rely upon a local congregation as the primary or exclusive means for experiencing and expressing their faith”, a significant drop.

What should we think?

  1. The predictions and the models may be inaccurate and based on faulty assumptions – for example, the model discussed above seems likely to predict ‘nominal religion’ better than the behaviour of committed believers – but the trends are fairly clear. Things are changing!
  2. While church attendance and affiliation may be declining, belief in God doesn’t appear to be suffering nearly as much – as I showed in Worldwide belief in God, belief in a god or supernatural being remains high around the world, certainly much higher than church attendance.
  3. In the US and the UK especially, many believers no longer attend denominational churches, but either practice their faith privately, or in smaller groups meeting in homes, workplaces, families or even online.
  4. Nevertheless, all this is a challenge to those of us who believe in Jesus. We need to avoid either complacency or fearfulness, and be more serious in praying and seeking better ways to communicate what we believe.

Watch this space!

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting on a number of topics related to how church might be improved, or even replaced, to better fulfil Jesus’ command to make disciples.

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  1. It is interesting that they didn’t take into account at all that ultra-orthodox Protestants in my country have a net growth.
    But it also gives me a bad feeling that they apparantly relied on Phil Zuckerman somehow for this paper. He is cited in various Wikipedia articles on religion in certain countries and always diverges enormously from the Eurobarometer. Here’s an example:

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