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Denominational decline related to birthrates, societal changes

Sociologists have tried to explain the decline of mainline denominations in a variety of ways. The truth is a little more complicated, says one prominent sociologist who has studied the data.

A common assumption among many churchgoers is that conservative denominations thrive because their theology is stricter and more demanding than that of the more liberal mainline denominations.

Not so, says C. Kirk Hadaway, a sociologist who has studied church growth and decline for many years.

In a series of articles available through the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hadaway and others show that conservative denominational growth began to slow at the same time as the mainline churches began to decline. The only difference is the accelerated pace of the drop among mainline denominations.

“It’s a knee-jerk reaction to say that theology is driving this,” says Hadaway, director of congregational research for the Episcopal Church.

In fact, the most recent membership figures show that denominational decline has begun to hit conservative denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, too.

The biggest reason for the denominational decline, Hadaway writes in an article titled “Growth and Decline in the Mainline,” is a drop in U.S. birthrates.  After the baby boom of the 1950s, American couples began having fewer children. As a result, baptisms fell, death rates grew and the graying of church pews began.

These changes affected conservative denominations too, but because members in these groups tended to live in the South, many in rural areas, they were more insulated from the larger U.S. trends.

But, Hadaway points out, birthrates don’t tell the entire story. To really understand denominational decline beginning in the mid-1960s, other factors must be taken into account.

These include the widespread availability of the birth control pill, the increasing rates of divorce and the movement of women into the workforce, which affected volunteerism at churches.

Add to that the emergence of a less community-minded, more individualistic ethic and — in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal — a growing distrust of institutions, and the formula for denominational decline takes root.

That’s not to say mainline denominations, such as the Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, are entirely blameless.

Hadaway faults these denominations for eliminating or cutting back on adult Christian education. Whereas in the 1950s children and adults each went to Sunday school and then to worship, during the 1960s and 1970s more churches dropped adult Christian education and began scheduling children’s Sunday school during the worship hour. As a result, kids quit participating in services.

“Why would you expect children to return to church as adults if they’ve had so little experience with worship?” Hadaway asks.

In addition, Hadaway says, ministers began preaching on social issues such as race and justice without tying the message back to Christian practice or ethics.

Unfortunately, the denominational declines that started 40 years ago show no signs of abating.  Hadaway describes the losses from 2001 to 2007 as worse that those from 1995 to 2001.

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