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Mark Silk is a Professor and the Director of Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College. Last week, in his Spiritual Politics column at Religion News Service (RNS), Dr. Silk wrote a piece entitled, “Stop the presses! There’s a next generation for mainline Protestantism.”
Citing the latest data on American religious trends from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), Dr. Silk writes:
Breaking down both white Catholics and white evangelicals by age cohort, millennials (18-to-20-[sic]-year-olds) constitute just 11 percent of the total, making them the two oldest religious traditions in the country. White mainline millennials come in at 14 percent.
Among all millennials, eight percent are white mainliners, eight percent are white evangelicals, and six percent are white Catholics. By comparison, among Americans 50 and older, white evangelicals outnumber both white mainliners and white Catholics roughly three to two.
Rather, what (relative) strength it [Mainline Protestantism] shows is likely to be coming from outside — from millennials raised Catholic or evangelical who want some other, dare I say more liberal, form of Christianity.
Please note that, for length, I cut out some sections of the article above. If you would like more context, click here to read the full article.
Dr. Silk cites the recently-released PRRI data to imbue hope into Mainline Protestants by effectively saying, “Hey, I know we’re hemorrhaging followers, but this latest data shows we’re grabbing the ex-evangelicals!”
As if that’s supposed to be encouraging news.
In the business world, growth by acquisition is often regarded as an unsustainable, unreliable means of growth. Sure, growth by acquisition is better than precipitous decline, but if business leaders had their choice, they would prefer to grow by improving their own products and services rather than relying on their ability to purchase the right companies that add to their worth.
Dr. Silk says in his article that the future of Mainline Protestantism largely relies upon young people leaving more conservative Christian traditions like Catholicism and evangelicalism and joining Mainline Protestant churches.
Is that sort of growth to be celebrated? Is that kind of growth even sustainable?
The sort of growth upon which Dr. Silk says Mainline Protestantism is relying for its youth movement requires young people to leave one tradition for another because their views of Scripture become more liberal than the conservative tradition of which they were a part.
Such growth isn’t really sustainable and can barely be called “growth.” It is not as though all young evangelicals are going to decide evangelicalism is too conservative. The key to healthy growth in a church movement is having children. It’s almost like God should have commanded it it’s so important. 🙂
At some point, the winnowing will cease and a certain number of young people who reject the conservative tradition of their youth will leave it for Mainline Protestantism and the “growth” will cease.
Then, it will be up to Mainline Protestantism to do what evangelicalism could not: convince those young people that the God of the Bible affirms the liberal views to which they so tightly hold.
To this point, this blog post has been taking the PRRI data and Dr. Silk’s piece at face value, without taking a critical look at the actual data or how it compares to other religious survey data.
We’re going to do that now, and it…changes things.
The problems with the PRRI data are best explained by Tobin Grant, himself a columnist for RNS. He tweeted shortly after the data was released:
Not identifying as "born again" or "evangelical" doesn't make you "mainline"
(this applies to lots of surveys, btw) https://t.co/AAXc0yEL1n
— Tobin Grant (@TobinGrant) September 8, 2017
What a lot of people don’t understand about comparing the growth/decline of various Christian traditions is that how you categorize people as “Mainline,” “evangelical,” or otherwise matters.
In its report, PRRI says this:
In this report, “evangelicals” are defined as those who self-identify as Protestant Christians who also identify as evangelical or born again.
Then, in a footnote on that sentence, they say this:
All respondents who identify as Christian are then asked the following question: “Would you describe yourself as a ‘born-again’ or ‘evangelical Christian,’ or not?” Respondents who self-identify as white, non-Hispanic, Protestant and affirmatively identify as born-again or evangelical are categorized as white evangelical Protestants.
That sounds all well and good, but the problem is exactly what Mr. Grant says: “Not identifying as ‘born again’ or ‘evangelical’ doesn’t make you ‘mainline.'” This is a common mistake in surveys such as this. Mainline Protestants are not just “those Christians who don’t identify as “evangelical.”
This is problematic for a number of reasons, but one timely issue is that this survey was done in 2016, a period of time in which many Americans would have been hesitant to self-identify as “evangelical” because of the unusually harsh political ramifications of that word throughout the election season.
Another major issue with the PRRI data is that it runs contrary to almost all other data of its kind.
Here is Mr. Grant again in a series of tweets:
A 5% drop is 10 million fewer Americans? Wow.
But @PRRIpoll didn't really do a 100,000+ survey. It did lots of little surveys 2/
— Tobin Grant (@TobinGrant) September 7, 2017
fewer people rigorously sampled. At least journalists should consider what better polls have found. 4/
— Tobin Grant (@TobinGrant) September 7, 2017
Then, Religion in Public, a blog by two professors that studies religious data, wrote this in an article called “No, Evangelicals Are Not on Their Deathbed”:
The best longitudinal surveys to compare PRRI’s results are the GSS and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). Both have the advantage of being large, national samples, and both include two different approaches to measuring evangelicals – affiliation with specific denominations and self-identification with evangelicalism (which PRRI used). There is some scholarly debate about which evangelical measure is best, so we thought it was helpful to include both. In either approach to categorizing evangelicals, we limited our evangelical category to white Protestants, which is common practice. Essentially, comparing the GSS and CCES data with the PRRI results using both measurement strategies allows us to fully assess if there is decline. The GSS and CCES also allow us to look at two different survey methods, as the GSS is conducted face-to-face, while the CCES is conducted online.
Then they shared this line graph of the data from those studies:
Further down on that article, they shared this graph, which depicts what I said above: the PRRI data may be a bit exaggerated because of its methodology.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably thinking:
Dr. Silk’s optimism about the youth movement of Mainline Protestantism is founded upon unreliable acquisitional growth and wobbly survey data.
The purpose of this blog post is not to say, “Evangelicalism’s decline isn’t as bad as Mainline Protestantism’s decline, let me prove it to you.” Evangelicalism is experiencing a bit of decline, and we evangelicals will simply have to trust that faithfulness to the Scriptures will outlast the seduction of liberal theology.
The purpose of this blog post is to say that a movement that celebrates a youth movement founded upon acquiring young people disgruntled with conservative theology from conservative movements is in a dire place, indeed.