The christian church is in decline (in terms of numbers at least) in most western countries. In the past, most of these were “christian countries”, and state churches had considerable power and influence, but that is mostly a fading memory.
You might think that affluence, science or religious pluralism (competition from other worldviews, including atheism) is drawing people away from the church. And you might think that religious persecution in Muslim, Hindu or atheist countries destroys the church. But it seems that none of these is the most important factor in religious decline.
In some countries (for example, Australia and USA) some christians try to hang on to that power by seeking special privilege and promoting laws that support christian ethics and values. But it turns out that this too is counter-productive.
It seems that government support and sponsorship may be the thing that most destroys the church.
Some think that increasing affluence and security leads to increasing unbelief. As people are more able to care for themselves and their world becomes less dangerous, they have less need of a God to care for them. Their attention turns inwards, it is said, to post-materialist concerns such as self expression, philosophy and identity.
There is some data that supports this conclusion, but new information suggests it isn’t the most important factor.
Science & education?
The Secularisation Thesis says that science, technology, and education undermine the traditional basis of religion by offering alternative, and better, explanations of religious mysteries. Once the fabric of shared religious belief is broken, it is said, religious belief will inevitably decline.
Thus it was confidently asserted half a century ago that the world would rapidly become secular under the onslaught from science. Trouble was, it didn’t happen as predicted – the decline in the west has been more than matched by increased religiosity elsewhere.
These days few believe the Secularisation Thesis is true worldwide.
Another challenge to religion is other religions. Christianity and Islam have successfully expanded into many parts of the world that were once the home of pagan or folk religions. Is christianity similarly vulnerable – for example, when Buddhism or Islam competes with christianity in Europe?
A new study of world religion suggests that, rather than being weakened by competition from other beliefs, christianity thrives. “Just as iron sharpens iron, competition hones religion. …. pluralism …. requires Christians to have a deep knowledge of their beliefs and to defend them in the marketplace of ideas.”
Right from the early days, the christian church has faced persecution. (Of course it has also persecuted others on occasions, but that is another story for another time.) Governments and alternative religious leaders have apparently thought that killing or discriminating against believers would stem the tide of conversions to christian faith.
But it hasn’t always worked out that way. Several Roman Emperors persecuted the church, but eventually the Empire became (nominally at least) christian. In more recent times, the Communist Chinese Government has tried to severely repress the church, but despite this, the Chinese church has grown to be one of the largest in the world, with 50 to 100 million believers.
Persecution in Iraq since the US-led invasion and the ISIS insurgency has led to 80% of christians leaving the country (though of course this isn’t a drop in christian numbers as they end up elsewhere). But in Iran, christians are also severely persecuted, yet the church has grown with maybe a million secret believers.
Severe persecution can drive christians to another country, but often it leads to a thriving and committed church. Overall, anti-Christian discrimination doesn’t adversely affect the church much, and sometimes persecution leads to growth.
Privilege stops the church growing
Statistics show that the biggest factor in a declining church is state sponsorship. “Nine of the 10 countries with the fastest-declining Christian populations in the world offer moderate to high levels of official support for Christianity.”
Thus in Europe, in Protestant countries like Britain and Sweden, and Catholic countries like Portugal, Spain, Belgium and Italy, the church is in decline, despite the state church receiving many privileges from the government. It is similar with the Russian Orthodox Church.
It appears that when christians seek, and gain, favoured status from governments, their attention is distracted and they become complacent. Privilege isn’t good for us.
How do we know all this?
All this comes from a recent study of religious belief in 166 countries across the world, conducted by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The study investigated pluralism, privilege and persecution and found statistically reliable conclusions as outlined above.
Christian belief in decline
In Europe, many more people are leaving christian belief than are joining, even though many remain nominally christian as part of the state church. Some politicians have called for greater links between christianity and government, as a bulwark against Islam and right-wing populist parties sometimes try to increase their vote by claiming to be defenders of a “Christian nation.” But this study concludes: “If such trends continue, we can expect to see the further corrosion and decline of Christianity in this part of the world.”
The US has seen a decline in christian involvement as evangelical christianity has identified itself with conservative politics. “Conservative Christians initially became involved in politics in the 1970s as a way to fight against the erosion of “Christian values” in society and to “take America back for God.”” Many evangelical leaders supported former President Donald Trump because of the power he gave to the evangelical church, but, the study authors observe, this has “repelled” many more moderate people – it is estimated that 20% of US evangelicals left the church during the Trump presidency.
Christian belief on the rise
On the other hand, christianity is on the rise in many parts of Asia and Africa.There has been spectacular growth in South Korea (where there is no government support) and China (where there has been government opposition).
The ten countries with the fastest christian growth worldwide are all in Africa, and all but one have below average support from their governments.
Hard lessons learnt?
The authors of the study draw a clear conclusion:
“Our research suggests the best way for Christian communities to recover their gospel witness is to reject the quest for political privilege as inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.”
- Paradoxes of Pluralism, Privilege, and Persecution: Explaining Christian Growth and Decline Worldwide. Nilay Saiya, Stuti Manchanda, Sociology of Religion, April 2021. The link to the study.
- Proof That Political Privilege Is Harmful for Christianity. Nilay Saiya, Christianity Today, May 2021. One of the study authors summarises the conclusions.
- Governments favoring Christianity paradoxically decrease residents’ faith. Theo Wayt, The Academic Times, April 2021.
- New Study Finds Political Privilege Damages Christianity’s Growth. Kaley Payne, Eternity News, May 2021.