Sam Reimer, professor of sociology and author of Caught in the Current, explores the decline of Christianity in light of the three ways religious groups can grow
Evangelicals, or conservative Protestants, are known for their efforts to convert others (evangelism), their commitment to the Bible and their higher than average devotion to their churches and to private prayer. They are also known for avoiding the “evils of the world”, often reflected in their conservative sexual ethics.
Social scientists have argued that this sort of “costly” religion, which maintains a degree of tension with the world, is resilient, because it tends to attract and breed committed members. For a time, they seemed to be right. Evangelicals in Western countries continued to grow in the 20th Century, long after mainline Protestants denominations were declining. However, in the UK and elsewhere, that is no longer the case. Even in the USA, there are signs of evangelical decline. Let’s look at some numbers.
According the 2021 census of England and Wales, 46% of the population is Christian, down from 59% ten years earlier. A similar decline is happening across the West, including in Canada, the USA and Australia. Over the same decade, the percentage of Britons who said they had “no religion” grew from 25% to 37%.
Evangelicals are a subset of Christians. In Britain, they are estimated to be about three per cent of the population, or two million people, but this estimate is probably a bit low. Whatever their current percentage, data is pretty clear that historical mainstream evangelical churches like Baptists, Methodists and Salvation Army are shrinking, with the majority of defectors joining the “no religion” group. Overall, the percentage of the population that is evangelical is declining, just like the percentage of Christians.
Why the decline? There are three ways religious groups can grow: through conversion, fertility and immigration. In Western countries, the best efforts of evangelicals to proselytize or gain converts does not seem to bear much fruit. British researcher Stephen Bullivant says: “For every 26 former Christians who now identify with no religion, there is only one former ‘none’ who now identifies with a Christian label of some kind.”
As for fertility, evangelicals have slightly larger families than non-evangelicals, but this difference is narrowing. Even if they have more kids, somewhere between one-third and a half of those raised evangelical are leaving the faith by the time they are adults.
However, evangelical decline is not just about (de)conversions, family size and immigration. As I argued in my previous post ‘Is Western Culture Eroding Christianity?’ (***hyperlink to his first article here***), Western culture is not supportive of evangelicalism; in fact, Westerners are increasingly critical of institutional religion in general. They have switched from deference to external religious authority to deference to inner authority, following the dictates of their heart.
Busy with their personal journeys toward inner wholeness, they rarely darken the door of a church. Furthermore, institutional religion often carries with it a cultural script that links it to colonialism, oppression, and even racism and sexism. Drenched in this negative light, few are looking for churches. So is evangelicalism, or even Christianity, destined to go the way of the dodo in Britain?
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Not necessarily. Let’s get back to the third growth factor, immigration. The UK is about 15% foreign born, and that percentage is growing. About half of these immigrants are Christians, and many are evangelical, particularly of the Pentecostal variety. According to Church statistician Peter Brierley, eight of the 15 fastest growing denominations in the UK are immigrant churches, and six of these are Pentecostal.
Further, immigrants have higher church attendance rates than non-immigrant Brits. Between 2003 and 2015, an estimated 1,300 Pentecostal churches were added in the UK. Overall, immigration is propping up evangelical numbers in the West and adding vitality to its churches. As a result, evangelicalism in the UK and in the West is increasingly non-white and Pentecostal. It is unlikely that evangelicalism will disappear any time soon.
For some, this might be good news. For others, it is not. Evangelicals have a reputation for being aggressive, intolerant and politically conservative. However, public impressions of evangelicals often drift over the Atlantic (via our news media) from the USA and British evangelicals are unfairly painted with the same brush. In reality, US evangelicalism, with is nationalism and strong alignment with right-wing politics, is the exception rather than the rule in global evangelicalism. In fact, the evangelicals I interviewed in Britain and Canada distanced themselves from their American co-religionists, trying to avoid those stereotypes. As such, they work hard to be irenic and welcoming of all. Some even avoid the label “evangelical”, due to its negative (American) connotations.
Evangelicals in the West are declining, but they are here to stay for the foreseeable future, even while they are changing demographically due to immigration.
Sam Reimer is professor of sociology at Crandall University and the author of Caught in the Current: British and Canadian Evangelicals in an age of self-spirituality.