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Study shows many pastors are not upbeat about the future of Christianity in America


ReligionNewsBlog.com • Saturday November 2, 2002

Ellison Research, Oct. 2002
http://www.ellisonresearch.com/

What will the religious landscape in the United States look like ten years from now? In a nationwide study conducted by Ellison Research of Phoenix, Arizona, a representative sample of 567 Protestant church pastors was asked what they expect things to be like a decade from now.

Pastors are often widely split over how and even whether things will be different in the year 2012.

However, one issue on which a vast majority of ministers agree is the expectation that the influence of non-Christian religions in the U.S. will increase in the coming decade. Eighty-two percent of all Protestant ministers feel this will increase, while 5% believe there will be a decrease in this, and 13% do not expect things to be much different ten years from now.

In a highly fragmented denominational landscape (all Protestant denominations were represented in this study, but there are many denominations), only four denominational groups are large enough to allow for their responses to be viewed separately: Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, and Pentecostal/charismatic ministers. On this particular question, Pentecostal/charismatic ministers are slightly less likely than their colleagues to expect an increase in the influence of non-Christian religions in the U.S. (72% foresee an increase).

There is only one other area out of the eight this study covers on which a majority of ministers agree. Fifty-five percent of all ministers believe there will also be an increase in the influence of New Age spirituality in the U.S. Twenty-six percent foresee no changes on the horizon, while 19% believe this will decrease in the coming years.

There are sharp differences of opinion on this issue among different types of pastors. Only 32% of Methodists and 48% of Lutherans believe New Age spirituality will have more influence in ten years than it does now, compared to 63% of Pentecostals and 67% of Baptists. Evangelical pastors in general are far more likely to see an increase in New Age spirituality 59% feel this will increase, compared to just 34% of pastors from mainline denominations. Younger ministers, also, are more likely to predict an increase in New Age influence (71%, compared to 51% of those age 45 to 59, and 42% of older ministers).

Pastors are at their most pessimistic when asked about overall freedom of religion in the U.S. Ten percent feel this will improve and 46% say it will stay the same as today, but 44% anticipate declining freedom of religion. This is particularly true among evangelical pastors, while a majority of mainline ministers expect no real changes.

On the other five subjects, ministers have widely varied opinions. Most are not optimistic about the influence of Christianity in Americans daily lives, as 41% believe this will decrease, and 33% think it will stay the same. Only 26% predict Christianity will influence Americans more in 2012 than it does today. Baptists and Lutherans tend to be a bit more pessimistic on this point than do pastors from other denominations, but there are not many other variances among different types of ministers.

Pastors are even less likely to feel there will be an increase in the influence of Christianity in national politics. Nineteen percent predict increased Christian influence in politics, 50% think it will not change much, and 31% believe there will be a decline of Christian influence, with few meaningful differences among different types of pastors.

There is an even greater split on subjects related to the future of churches. Thirty-three percent of all ministers predict an increase in the proportion of Americans who attend a Christian church. At the same time, 23% feel this will not change, and the most popular view is that church attendance will decline (44%). Baptists and Lutherans are the groups most likely to anticipate a decrease in church attendance, while Pentecostals are more likely than other groups to believe attendance will rise over the next decade.

Even though its more popular to predict a decline in church attendance than an increase, many pastors are not willing to believe this will lead to fewer churches. Thirty-five percent believe the number of Christian churches in the U.S. will increase in the next ten years, while 30% believe this will stay the same, and 35% think it will decrease. Pentecostals are again the group most likely to have an optimistic view, with almost half predicting an increase in the number of Christian churches.

While mainline and evangelical ministers have similar feelings about overall church attendance and the number of churches throughout the U.S., they differ dramatically when asked about the future of their own denominations. Overall, 43% of all ministers believe the number of people attending your denominations churches will increase by 2012, while 25% predict stasis, and 32% see a decline coming.

However, mainline and evangelical ministers differ considerably. Among mainline pastors, 26% believe their denomination will grow, and 44% predict a decline (the latter of which has actually been the general trend for mainline denominations for a number of years). But among evangelical ministers, 48% predict denominational growth, while just 27% predict decline.

In another way to look at this, pastors from churches that are members of the National Association of Evangelicals (representing many but not all evangelical denominations) are very upbeat, with 70% predicting growth and just 14% forecasting decline. Pastors from denominations in the mainline National Council of Churches are far more downbeat, with just 20% predicting growth, while 54% expect decreases.

Pentecostal and charismatic pastors, particularly, are optimistic: an impressive 80% feel their denomination will grow. Methodists (22% grow, 49% decline) and Lutherans (25% grow, 39% decline) are the most pessimistic about the future of attendance in their denomination.

The final area explored in the study is what ministers believe will happen with the proportion of Americans who are believing Christians in the next ten years. Again, their opinions are split: 34% predict Christianity will grow, 29% feel it will be stable, and 37% anticipate a decline. As in many other areas, Lutherans and Baptists are particularly pessimistic about this.

Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research and director of this study, wondered in some cases whether pastors who anticipate gains by Christianity are taking a wholly realistic look at national trends. Study after study reveals no real increase in church attendance, Bible readership, or Christian belief in the U.S. for many decades, Sellers said. Its understandable that evangelicals tend to expect growth in their denomination, while mainline ministers often anticipate decline, because that is a continuation of well-established trends. But the pastors who predict overall increased church attendance or more Christian influence in peoples lives are apparently expecting the start of something new something that, by all available measurements, isnt currently happening in the U.S. and hasnt happened for many years.

The study was conducted by Ellison Research, a marketing research company located in Phoenix, Arizona. Although Ellison Research has numerous clients, this study was funded and conducted independently by the company. The sample of 567 Protestant ministers included only those who are actively leading churches. The studys total sample is accurate to within 4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level with a 50% response distribution. The study was conducted in all 50 states, using a representative sample of pastors from all Protestant denominations. (Only certain denominational groups are discussed individually in this news release because others did not have a large enough sample size to be examined separately, although they are represented within the total sample in correct proportion to their size.) Respondents geography, church size, and denomination were carefully tracked to ensure appropriate representation and accuracy.

Think about the United States in 10 years. How do you think each of the things listed below will change, if at all, in the next 10 years? (Among all respondents)

 Area

Increase

Stay the Same

Decrease

The influence of non-Christian religions in the U.S.

82%

13%

5%

The influence of New Age spirituality in the U.S.

55

26

19

The number of people attending your denominations churches

43

25

32

The number of Christian churches in the U.S.

35

30

35

The proportion of Americans who are believing Christians

34

29

37

The proportion of Americans who attend a Christian church

33

23

44

The influence of Christianity in Americans daily lives

26

33

41

The influence of Christianity in national politics

19

50

31

The overall freedom of religion in the U.S.

10

46

44

 

Think about the United States in 10 years.  How do you think each of the things listed below will change, if at all, in the next 10 years?  (Among Baptists; n = 139)

 Area

Increase

Stay the Same

Decrease

The influence of non-Christian religions in the U.S.

86%

10%

4%

The influence of New Age spirituality in the U.S.

67

20

13

The number of people attending your denominations churches

44

29

27

The number of Christian churches in the U.S.

38

31

31

The proportion of Americans who are believing Christians

29

22

49

The proportion of Americans who attend a Christian church

26

20

55

The influence of Christianity in Americans daily lives

24

28

47

The influence of Christianity in national politics

18

44

38

The overall freedom of religion in the U.S.

8

33

59

 

Think about the United States in 10 years.  How do you think each of the things listed below will change, if at all, in the next 10 years?  (Among Methodists; n = 73)

 Area

Increase

Stay the Same

Decrease

The influence of non-Christian religions in the U.S.

77%

14%

10%

The influence of New Age spirituality in the U.S.

32

40

29

The number of people attending your denominations churches

22

29

49

The number of Christian churches in the U.S.

25

32

44

The proportion of Americans who are believing Christians

44

30

26

The proportion of Americans who attend a Christian church

40

22

38

The influence of Christianity in Americans daily lives

30

36

34

The influence of Christianity in national politics

18

55

27

The overall freedom of religion in the U.S.

18

56

26

 

Think about the United States in 10 years.  How do you think each of the things listed below will change, if at all, in the next 10 years?  (Among Pentecostals; n = 62)

 Area

Increase

Stay the Same

Decrease

The influence of non-Christian religions in the U.S.

73%

19%

8%

The influence of New Age spirituality in the U.S.

63

27

10

The number of people attending your denominations churches

80

15

5

The number of Christian churches in the U.S.

49

23

28

The proportion of Americans who are believing Christians

43

23

33

The proportion of Americans who attend a Christian church

48

20

33

The influence of Christianity in Americans daily lives

36

29

36

The influence of Christianity in national politics

23

47

30

The overall freedom of religion in the U.S.

8

32

60

 

Think about the United States in 10 years.  How do you think each of the things listed below will change, if at all, in the next 10 years?  (Among Lutherans; n = 61)

 Area

Increase

Stay the Same

Decrease

The influence of non-Christian religions in the U.S.

88%

12%

The influence of New Age spirituality in the U.S.

48

23

30%

The number of people attending your denominations churches

25

36

39

The number of Christian churches in the U.S.

17

40

43

The proportion of Americans who are believing Christians

20

33

48

The proportion of Americans who attend a Christian church

15

25

61

The influence of Christianity in Americans daily lives

12

38

51

The influence of Christianity in national politics

13

59

28

The overall freedom of religion in the U.S.

8

59

32

 

Think about the United States in 10 years.  How do you think each of the things listed below will change, if at all, in the next 10 years?  (Among all others; n = 227)

 Area

Increase

Stay the Same

Decrease

The influence of non-Christian religions in the U.S.

81%

15%

4%

The influence of New Age spirituality in the U.S.

54

27

19

The number of people attending your denominations churches

45

20

35

The number of Christian churches in the U.S.

38

28

35

The proportion of Americans who are believing Christians

36

34

30

The proportion of Americans who attend a Christian church

37

26

37

The influence of Christianity in Americans daily lives

28

35

37

The influence of Christianity in national politics

21

52

28

The overall freedom of religion in the U.S.

9

51

40

Numbers may not add to exactly 100% due to rounding.  “Don’t know” responses are not shown.

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