Growing up in an evangelical church, there were two things we knew for certain about the decline of mainline Christianity.
The first was that the reason so many United, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches were losing members was because they had become too liberal—something that was emphasized regularly from the pulpit at my church.
The second thing was that a similar decline would never happen to us.
It seems we were wrong on both counts.
In his forthcoming book, The End of White Christian America, author Robert P. Jones notes that the decline of the mainline church is less about doctrine and more about “powerful demographic changes”—and that it is happening to evangelicals today, too.
Looking at the numbers, Jones says the proportion of white mainline Protestants and white evangelicals today is 32 percent of Americans, down from 51 percent in 1993.
The reason for this change? More and more Americans are leaving organized religion, Jones says, noting that 20 percent of Americans today consider themselves to be religiously unaffiliated.
Many of the unaffiliated people are young adults, who are less than half as likely as seniors to identify with a church.
This rejection of organized religion by youth, Jones says, is a “major force of change in the religious landscape.”
Looking ahead, “there’s no sign that this pattern will fade anytime soon,” he says. “By 2051, if current trends continue, religiously unaffiliated Americans could comprise as large a percentage of the population as Protestants.”
For a long time, this inability to retain youth was mostly a mainline church problem. And, for long time, evangelicals crowed about it, as I recall from my own upbringing, blaming mainline decline on liberalism.
But then, in 2008, evangelical numbers in the U.S. started to drop, too. Today 18 percent of Americans say they are evangelicals, down from 22 percent in 1988.
Not only has it dropped, Jones says, but this evangelical decline is actually sharper and steeper than what happened to the mainline churches in the U.S. years earlier.
Evangelicals today, he says, “constitute 27 percent of seniors age 65 and older, but only 10 percent of Americans under 30 years of age—a loss of nearly two-thirds from the oldest to the youngest generation of adults.”
By contrast, “white mainline Protestants—who saw a reduction in their numbers two decades before evangelical numbers began to dip—account for 20 percent of seniors but 10 percent of younger Americans.
“This still represents a 50 percent decline in market share across generations, but it is less steep than the evangelical decline.”
A comparison of the current affiliation patterns of the oldest and youngest American, he says “reveals that white evangelicals have actually lost more ground than white mainline Protestants across current generations.”
For Jones, “these numbers point to one undeniable conclusion: white Protestant Christians—both mainline and evangelical—are aging and quickly losing ground as a proportion of the population.”
Of course, there are still a lot of evangelicals in the U.S., and a lot of mainline Christians, too. It would be foolish to suggest that organized Christianity is not still a powerful force in that country, or that the church will soon disappear.
But something profound is taking place today in the U.S., and in Canada as well.
Looking at the Canadian religious situation, in 2013 the Pew Research Center noted that the percentage of Canadians who identify as Catholic had dropped from 47 percent to 39 percent since 1963, while the share that identified as Protestant fell even more steeply, from 41 percent to 27 percent.
As well, the number of by Canadians who are religiously unaffiliated is growing—up to 24 percent by 2010.
As in the U.S., it is younger Canadians who are less likely to be religious than older generations; 29 percent of people born between 1987 and 1995 had no religious affiliation as of 2011, 17 percentage points higher than Canada’s oldest living generation (born 1946 or earlier), and nine points higher than Canadians born between 1947 and 1966.
In other words, when it comes to future of the church, the old evangelical certainty of my youth isn’t as certain anymore. We are all in this together—liberal, conservative and everything in between.