322 The Myth of the Dying Church

Several weeks ago I began the Sunday school class I teach during the summer by referencing a recent article in First Things entitled “Belief Limbo,” by Ronald Dworkin, lamenting the growing number of folks in America “who are unsure, uninterested, undecided, or just too busy for religion, and who live in ‘belief limbo.’”  Since his concerns regarding the decline of religion had been widely diffused throughout by the religious media, I took his pessimism seriously, and we discussed how churches might better evangelize the nation.   Literally a few days later I read an article referencing a recent book that refutes many of these notions—Glen T. Stanton’s The Myth of the Dying Church:  How Christianity is Actually Thriving in America and the World (New York:  Worthy Publications, c. 2019)—so I acquired and rapidly read it.  Stanton is the director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, where he has worked since 1993, and he reminds us that Theodore Beza, John Calvin’s successor in Geneva, said:  “[ L] et it be your pleasure to remember that the Church is an anvil which has worn out many a hammer.” 

Stanton begins by acknowledging the influence of various “Chicken Littles” who have persuaded the public that Christianity is declining.  A headline in the Washington Post asserted:  “Christianity Faces Sharp Decline as Americans Are Becoming Even Less Affiliated with Religion.”  Similarly,  Newsmax declared:  “Christianity Declines Sharply in US, Agnostics Growing:  Pew.”   An article posted on BeliefNet lamented:  “Declining Christianity:  The Exodus of the Young and the Rise of Atheism.”  National Public Radio, in a celebratory note, said:  “Christians in U.S. on Decline as Number of ‘Nones’ Grows, Survey Finds.”  And that depository of all things properly liberal, the New York Times intoned:  “Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christian.”  And as if the secular doomsayers were not enough, trusted Christian sources often affirm the litany of woe.  One leading Christian author declared:  “Young people are leaving the church in droves,” reflected in “‘staggering numbers’” of those who say they no longer believe.”  An advertisement in a Christian magazine said:  “This generation of teens is the largest in history— and current trends show that only 4 percent will be evangelical believers by the time they become adults.  Compare this with 34 percent of adults today who are evangelicals.  We are on the verge of a catastrophe.”  Then a parachurch organization declared:   “Up to 90 percent or more of Christian kids will leave the church by the time they reach adulthood” and a youth ministry publication warned: “86% of evangelical youth drop out of church after graduation, never to return.”  Unfortunately, many of the folks circulating bad news are in organizations selling books or programs designed to address the problem!  Apologetics is an important discipline, but practitioners of the discipline frequently overstate the threats the church faces order to elicit support.

Given such a plethora of pessimism, many of us may have rather despaired at the prospects for the church!   But Stanton urges us to reconsider:  “I have good news for you:  IT’S SIMPLY NOT TRUE!” (p. xx).  There’s certainly little good news for mainline Protestant churches, for they have sustained significant losses.  “Pew’s America’s Changing Landscape states that between 2007 and 2014, mainline Protestant churches declined by 5 million adult members; taking into account margin of error, that number could be as high as 7.3 million lost members.  Regardless, the loss is massive.  But here is the part you didn’t hear.  Churches in Pew’s ‘evangelical’ category continued to grow in absolute numbers by about 2 million between 2007 and 2014” (p. 26).  Stanton finds this good news because he’s dived into serious scholarly literature—in-depth analyses by renowned professors, scholarly articles in trustworthy journals, and data-packed studies “from leading mainstream organizations that track church growth and decline numbers” (p. 12). 

The percentage of Protestants and Catholics who say their faith “is very important” to them has “increased two percentage points since 2007” (p. 37); they pray daily, join small groups for Bible study and fully believe it is God’s inspired Word.  Stressing the vitality of the faith in today’s America, Greg Smith, for example, “has long worked as the associate director of research for the Pew Research Center, one of the most trusted and respected institutions on this topic.  In an interview with Christianity Today a few years ago, Smith was asked by Dr. Ed Stetzer of Wheaton College if evangelicalism was dying.  He said simply, ‘Absolutely not,’ and went on to explain, ‘There’s nothing in these data to suggest that Christianity is dying.  That Evangelicalism is dying.  That Catholicism is dying.  That is not the case whatsoever’” (p. 13)  In fact, Evangelicalism is, “if anything, growing.”  It’s growth is substantiated by a Indiana/Harvard study that finds it increased from 18 percent of the population in 1972 to 28 percent in 2016.  Much of this growth in taking place in nondenominational, independent churches, many of them of the “megachurch” variety.

Turning to the oft-cited “nones” Stanton says it’s just a new name for an irreligious or nominally Christian group which has always been part of American culture.  “Let me put it directly,” he says:  “The rise in these much talked about and fretted-over nones are not people leaving their faith or the church.  They are not a new kind of unbeliever.  They are not actually a new group at all.  These are folks who are simply being more honest and accurate in their description of where they have always been in terms of their belief and practice.  This is who the nones are.  Their rise is not because of some great secularizing upheaval in American’s faith beliefs and practices.  They are simply reporting their actual faith practices in more candid ways, largely due to new ways in which polling questions have been asked in the last ten years or so.”  Wheaton’s Ed Stetzer, “has given one of the best clarifying explanations of this phenomenon that I’ve seen.  In USA Today, he wrote that ‘Christianity isn’t collapsing, it’s being clarified’” (pp. 53-54). 

Still more:  rather than multitudes of young people rejecting their parents’ faith “nearly 90 percent of kids coming from homes where they were taught a serious faith retain that faith into adulthood” (p. 56).   That collegians may for a time turn irreligious is an old, old story, for young people often demonstrate their independence by rejecting the faith of their fathers.  But, Rodney Stark says:  “‘That [young adults] haven’t defected from the church is obvious from the fact that a bit later in life, when they have married, especially after children arrive, they become more regular attenders. This happens every generation’” (p. 99).  Still more, Ed Steltzer says the University of Chicago’s universally respected General Social Survey (GSS) reveals that:  ‘If you look at young [evangelical] adults, eighteen to twenty-nine years old, we are at the highest reported levels since 1972 of regular church attendance among this group.  That’s a pretty big deal’” (p. 100).  And the reason these young people adhere to the faith is equally big:  parents!  Authentically devout parents enable their children to become devout adults. 

Professor Christian Smith, one of the nation’s finest sociologists, has for years overseen the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), and he asserts that “‘parents are huge— absolutely huge— nearly a necessary condition’ for a child to adopt a living and lasting faith.  He concludes, ‘Without question, the most important pastor a child will ever have in their life is a parent’” (p. 113).  In fact, “fully 85 percent of teens raised by parents who took their faith very seriously, and lived in a home with consistent faith practices, became young adults who not only had a serious faith, but had the highest levels of religious belief and practice among their peers!” (p. 114).  The data show that effective parents:  1) “take their faith very seriously and live it out in meaningful ways;” 2) establish warm relationships with their kids; 3) encourage them to pray regularly and do so themselves;  4) engage them in and exemplify Bible reading; 5) routinely attend church and take part in its various ministries; 6) celebrate “miracles in their own lives and the lives of others;” 7) encourage children to deal honestly with their doubts and difficulties; 8) stand alongside them when teachers or classmates ridicule or persecute them for their faith; 9) enlist “satellite adults” to model and help them in living out the “family’s faith and convictions” (pp. 133-134).

Looking beyond the United States, the state of Christianity around the world is even more encouraging, particularly in the “Global South”—Latin America; Africa; and Asia.  “In terms of sheer numbers, Christianity is flowering around the world and doing so soundly, even dominantly” and probably will do so throughout this century.  . . . .  Specifically, the coming two decades will see the world’s population of Christians grow from today’s 2 billion to a remarkable 3 billion adherents, making Christianity the world’s largest faith for at least the next eighty years” (p. 74).  In stark contrast to Europe and the mainline churches in America, churches in the Global South are almost universally “strongly conservative in their theology, ecclesiology, and sexual teachings” (p. 80). 

And, most importantly, what’s evident in this world-wide church growth is the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, for He has empowered “Christ’s church across time and throughout the nations.  He is unstoppable, unquenchable, and inherently life-giving.  He is not nodding off, sickly, or on vacation.  The work of His heart and very character will not be thwarted.  He is God.  To believe the church is dying is to deny these truths and judge God either confused or a liar” (p. 191).  As was evident at Pentecost, “God’s Word will not return void.  What the Bible says of the church on its first day will also be true of these churches today:  ‘And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved’ (Acts 2: 47).  Church, be of good cheer.  God is true.  Aslan is on the move.  Chicken Little is mistaken.  God’s future is bright.  It cannot be otherwise” (p. 193).

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

For many years Rodney Stark, a professor at Baylor University,  has been trying to correct some pernicious errors regarding Church history.  In Bearing False Witness:  Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (West Conshohocken, PA : Templeton Press, Kindle Edition, c. 2016), he sought to rectify the record—not to defend the Catholic Church (since he is a Protestant) but to defend history.  To do this he first addresses various “distinguished bigots” (such as Edward Gibbon) posing as scholars who have maliciously slandered Catholics.  “It all began with the European wars stemming from the Reformation that pitted Protestants versus Catholics and took millions of lives, during which Spain emerged as the major Catholic power.  In response, Britain and Holland fostered intense propaganda campaigns that depicted the Spanish as bloodthirsty and fanatical barbarians.  The distinguished medieval historian Jeffrey Burton Russell explained, ‘Innumerable books and pamphlets poured from northern presses accusing the Spanish Empire of inhuman depravity and horrible atrocities…. Spain was cast as a place of darkness, ignorance, and evil.  Informed modern scholars not only reject this malicious image, they even have given it a name: the ‘Black Legend.’ Nevertheless, this impression of Spain and of Spanish Catholics remains very much alive in our culture—mere mention of the “Spanish Inquisition” evokes disgust and outrage” (#68). 

Inasmuch as much of the “Black Legend” is patently untrue, so other allegations regarding the ignorance and crimes of Roman Catholics need to be disproved.  This includes rightly portraying the Spanish Inquisition, long a whipping boy for cynical critics.  For years Stark had believed the Inquisition illustrated the depravity of the Catholic Church, so “when I first encountered the claim that not only did the Spanish Inquisition spill very little blood but that it mainly was a major force in support of moderation and justice, I dismissed it as another exercise in outlandish, attention-seeking revisionism.  Upon further investigation, I was stunned to discover that in fact, among other things, it was the Inquisition that prevented the murderous witchcraft craze, which flourished in most of Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from spreading to Spain and Italy. Instead of burning witches, the inquisitors sent a few people to be hanged because they had burned witches” (#128).

Without question the “Spanish Inquisition” is routinely included in anti-Catholic polemics, generally written by zealous Protestants or cynical secularists.  Best-selling books by historians such as Will Durant, easily fueled prejudices by declaring that “‘we must rank the Inquisition … as among the darkest blots on the record of mankind, revealing a ferocity unknown in any beast’” (p. 110).  Shocking stories about Torquemada’s brutality, estimates of victims killed ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions (including 300,000 burned at the stake), contributed much to the “Black Legend” so beloved by many.  However, Stark says:  “The standard account of the Spanish Inquisition is mostly a pack of lies, invented and spread by English and Dutch propagandists in the sixteenth century during their wars with Spain and repeated ever after by the malicious or misled historians eager to sustain “‘an image of Spain as a nation of fanatical bigots’” (p. 111).  Contemporary scholars, scouring Spanish archives, have actually read the ”records made of each of the 44,674 cases heard by these two Inquisitions between 1540 and 1700” as well as diaries and letters written in those years.  During the first 50 years, perhaps 1500 people may have been executed, though the records are sparse.  But during “the fully recorded period, of the 44,674 cases, only 826 people were executed, which amounts to 1.8 percent of those brought to trial.  All told, then, during the entire period 1480 through 1700, only about ten deaths per year were meted out by the Inquisition all across Spain, a small fraction of the many thousands of Lutherans, Lollards, and Catholics (in addition to two of his wives) that Henry VIII is credited with having boiled, burned, beheaded, or hanged” (p. 114).

Dealing with the “Sins of Anti-Semitism,” Stark provides an important historical context, showing how Jews have frequently suffered in various historical epochs.  Long before Christianity flourished there were influential Romans, such as Cicero, Seneca, and Tacitus who manifested Anti-Semitism.  In fact:  “The Jews were expelled from Rome in 139 BCE by an edict that charged them with attempting ‘to introduce their own rites’ to the Romans and thereby ‘to infect Roman morals’” (p. 4).  Then, in 70 A.D., the Romans brutally suppressed a Jewish rebellion, destroyed the Temple, and inaugurated a massive Jewish diaspora throughout the Empire.  As the Early Church developed, Jews often played a major role in denouncing and persecuting it.  Thus we find, in both the NT and subsequent Christian writings, many anti-Jewish statements.  But as Christianity triumphed there was relatively little persecution of Jews.  Throughout the Early Middle Ages they enjoyed considerable toleration within Christian communities, but things changed rather dramatically in the 11th century when the Islamic threat precipitated attacks on Jews.

Unfortunately, in the 11th century many Christians became almost morbidly concerned with heresies of various sorts and Jews often suffered alongside them.  “Unlike Christian heretics such as the Cathars, Waldensians, Fraticelli, and similar groups,” however, “the Jews were the only sizeable, openly nonconformist religious group that survived in Europe until the Lutherans did so by force of arms” (p. 19).  Indeed, “no pope in the Middle Ages ever undertook a campaign to convert the Jews,” and the distinguished historian Steven T. Katz, “wrote:  ‘Though Christendom possessed the power, over the course of nearly fifteen hundred years, to destroy that segment of the Jewish people it dominated, it chose not to do so … because the physical extirpation of Jewry was never, at any time, the official policy of any church or of any Christian state” (p. 19).

One of the widespread myths was popularized by Edward Gibbon when he declared Christianity prevailed in the Roman Empire because emperors and prelates ruthlessly imposed the Faith by persecuting pagans.   Consequently, as Peter Brown said:  “‘From Gibbon and Burckhardt to the present day, it has been assumed that the end of paganism was inevitable, once confronted by the resolute intolerance of Christianity; that the interventions of the Christian emperors in its suppression were decisive.’  But it isn’t true. As Peter Brown continued, large, active pagan communities “continued to enjoy, for many generations, [a] relatively peaceable … existence.” All that really happened is that they “slipped out of history’” (p. 46).  Solid historical work now shows pagans peacefully coexisted with Christians following Constantine’s Edict of Toleration.  Indeed we read, in the Code of Justinian:  “‘We especially command those persons who are truly Christians, or who are said to be so, that they should not abuse the authority of religion and dare to lay violent hands on Jews and pagans, who are living quietly and attempting nothing disorderly or contrary to law’” (p. 47).  As one of the finest contemporary historians,  Ramsey MacMullen, emeritus professor of history at Yale University and cited by the American Historical as “the greatest historian of the Roman Empire alive today” put it: “‘The triumph of the church was not one of obliteration but of widening embrace and assimilation’” (p. 61).

Intermingled with misinformation regarding the Inquisition are charges of multitudes of witches being burned.  Feminist “historians” have been particularly aggressive in making such accusations, part and parcel of their assault on evil patriarchs!  “Perhaps no historical statistics have been so outrageously inflated as the numbers executed as witches during the craze that took place in Europe from about 1450 to 1700.  It is sometimes alleged that some nine million witches were burned, often at the hands of Catholic Inquisitors.  But it’s all “vicious nonsense,” for solid scholarship now shows that perhaps 60,000 witches were actually executed, and these were in Protestant rather than Catholic countries.  Indeed, Henry C. Lea (no friend of Catholics) “agreed that witch-hunting was ‘rendered comparatively harmless’ in Spain and that this ‘was due to the wisdom and firmness of the Inquisition’” (p. 116). 

As is evident in the New York Times’ recent determination to date America’s founding in 1619, when slaves first landed in Virginia, slavery provides formidable fodder with which to attack one’s cultural foes.  So too, various historians have asserted that the Catholic Church legitimated and supported slavery.  But in fact slavery had slowly disappeared in the Early Middle Ages as Christianity extended its influence.  Furthermore, the Church’s greatest theologian, Thomas Aquinas, said slavery is a sin, and his position “has guided papal policy ever since” (p. 162).   Thus Pope Paul III declared that American Indians “and all other peoples—even though they be outside the faith—… should not be deprived of their liberty or their other possessions … and are not to be reduced to slavery, and that whatever happens to the contrary is to be considered null and void’” (p. 164).  Unfortunately, other popes occasionally departed from this policy, and it had little influence in Spanish and Portuguese colonies, where monarchs defied the popes and slavery flourished for centuries.  “The problem wasn’t that the Church failed to condemn slavery; it was that few heard it and most did not listen” (p. 165).  Stark carefully examines the French Code Noir and Spain’s Código Negro Español, showing how historians have selectively quoted the documents to disparage the Catholic Church, when in fact the codes set forth much more humane practices than could be found in Protestant colonies.  In America, these two codes helped shape slave-treatment in Louisiana when France (and briefly Spain) controlled the colony, so in 1830 “a far higher percentage of blacks in Louisiana were free (13.2 percent) than in any other slave state” (p. 171).  In fact, in “New Orleans, 41.7 of the blacks were free in 1830,” whereas in Charleston, South Carolina only 6.4 percent were free” (p. 172). 

Stark’s approach to various “myths” stands forth in his chapter titles, setting forth the errors he endeavors to expose:  1. Sins of Antisemitism  2. The Suppressed Gospels  3. Persecuting the Tolerant Pagans  4. Imposing the Dark Ages  5. Crusading for Land, Loot, and Converts  6. Monsters of the Inquisition  7. Scientific Heresies  8. Blessed Be Slavery 9. Holy Authoritarianism  10. Protestant Modernity. 

What Stark helps us do is read history more carefully, remaining especially vigilant whenever historians deal with Catholicism—or Christianity for that matter.  Just as Jesus warned, our enemies will “utter all kinds of evil against you falsely” (Mt 5:11).  That such is done is eminently evident in history books!