An Overview of the Situation of Protestant Christianity in North America and Europe

A Hungarian Reformed Perspective on Decline and Renewal of the Church

Timothy Keller, former pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, begins his article, The Decline and Renewal of the American Church, published earlier this year, by saying that „virtually everyone agrees that something is radically wrong with the church” - or so it seems, at least, given the fact that Christianity otherwise is growing dynamically around the world.

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“The global Christian church is growing rapidly (as is Islam) and most demographers and social scientists do not see either religion in general or Christianity in particular fading away to a non-consequential force, even in the West. Most demographers and social scientists agree, he argues, that Christianity has not been marginalised and continues to represent a major force,” reminds Keller.

Perhaps one could more accurately state that there is a problem with specific part of the church.

The question is, what is the reason for this? Keller points out that in the late 1950s, nearly half of Americans attended church regularly (the highest rate of people attending church in US history). The mightiest stream was mainline Protestantism: mainline Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational denominations etc. Then suddenly there was a serious decline which was first noticed by these mainline Protestant denominations. "From a high of 3.4 million members in the mid-1960s, the Episcopal Church declined to 2.4 million by the early 1990’s. In 2019, it recorded 1.6 million members. The mainline Presbyterian Church had 4.25 million members in 1965, but by 2000, they numbered 2.5 million and in 2020, 1.25 million. Other major denominations have shown more or less similar precipitous declines," reminds Keller. But what was the reason for this? Keller draws the answer from Dean Kelley's seminal 1972 work, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.

Kelley began by first referring to the fact that not all religious communities are declining - some are growing, and the latter are almost exclusively conservative in theology and ethics.

Commissioned by the National Council of Churches, researcher Dean M. Kelley set out to find out why conservative churches were growing, even as the more liberal churches were declining. In his 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion, Kelley argued that evangelical churches grow precisely because they do what the more liberal congregations and denominations intentionally reject -- they make serious demands of believers in terms of doctrine and behavior. Amid the current neglect and hostility toward organized religion in general," Kelley noted, "the conservative churches, holding to seemingly outmoded theology and making strict demands on their members, have equalled or surpassed in growth the early percentage increases of the nation's population."

Why is that so? Kelley argued that conservative churches continued to focus mainly on spiritual needs and supernatural “largest-scale” cosmic meanings—the reality of God, the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, the power of the Holy Spirit for inward change, the efficacy of Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins, the eventual arrival of the kingdom of God. “Liberal mainline churches, on the other hand, had adapted heavily to modern secular thought. They rejected the concept of miracles, of being born again by the Spirit, of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, of a trustworthy Bible. They adopted, in Kelley’s words, “relativism… lukewarmness… individualism…,” summarizes Kelley’s insights Keller.

This is how, with a larger jump in time, we have come to the point where today the largest Lutheran denomination of the country, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and the largest Presbyterian denomination, the PC USA, have fully identified with progressive ideas, and as a result their membership continues to decline rapidly. By the way, in the former, a transgender person was elected as Bishop and installed on 21 September.

At the same time, in terms of numbers, evangelical Protestantism is still the largest Christian denomination in the USA.

According to the Pew Research Center's 2014 Religious Landscape Study, about a quarter (25.4%) of American adults still belong to evangelical Protestantism. In this survey, evangelical Protestants are identified primarily by their affiliation with major evangelical denominations (to name a few: Southern Baptist Convention; Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod; Presbyterian Church in America) or with separate evangelical churches or communities. According to the study, evangelical Protestantism is still the largest religious group in the country, outnumbering Catholic (20.8%), rapidly declining mainline Protestant (14.7%) and nonreligious (“nons” - 22.8%) population.

Although the proportion of evangelical Protestants in the population has declined slightly in recent years (to 26.3% in 2007 and 25.4% in 2014), the decline was slower than among the mainline Protestant and Catholic population. Even as the share of Americans identifying themselves as evangelical Protestants has declined, the actual number of evangelical Christians appears to be growing parallel to the overall U.S. population. In 2014 62,2 million people belonged to this group compared to 59,8 millions in 2007.

“While there is much continuity in the relationship of religion and politics in the U.S., not everything is fixed in stone. The Landscape Study shows, for example, that nearly all major religious groups have become significantly more accepting of homosexuality in recent years – even groups, such as evangelicals and Mormons, that traditionally have expressed strong opposition to same-sex relationships. Changing attitudes about homosexuality are linked to the same generational forces helping to reshape religious identity and practice in the United States, with Millennials expressing far more acceptance of homosexuality than older adults do. Fully half of Millennials who identify as evangelical Protestants, for instance, now say homosexuality should be accepted by society,” says the PEW report.

The destructive processes outlined above have taken place in mainline church communities in Europe likewise. It is enough to have a look at the issue of perceptions of marriage. At present, the following churches allow blessing of partnership or “marriage” of same-sex couples:

  • The destructive processes outlined above have taken place in mainline church communities in Europe likewise. It is enough to have a look at the issue of perceptions of marriage. At present, the following churches allow blessing of partnership or “marriage” of same-sex couples:
  • Protestant Church of Augsburg Confession in Austria (Evangelische Kirche A. B. in Österreich);
  • Protestant Church of Augsburg Helvetic Confession in Austria (Evangelische Kirche H. B. in Österreich) - where same sex couples have been blessed since 1998 (actually the first church in Europe to allow it) and since 2019, liturgical marriage has been possible;
  • Protestant Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland - EKD) - nineteen of its twenty regional churches allow same-sex marriage and officiate blessing at weddings;
  • Swiss Reformed Church (Evangelisch-reformierte Kirche Schweiz);
  • Protestant Church in the Netherlands (Protestantse Kerk in Nederland);
  • Church of Denmark (Danske Folkekirke);
  • Church of Sweden (Svenska Kyrkan);
  • Church of Norway (Den Norske Kirke);
  • Lutheran Church of Iceland;
  • Church of Finnland (Suomen Evankelis-Luterilainen Kirkko);
  • United Reformed Church in Great Britain;
  • Waldensian Evangelical Church (Chiesa Evangelica Valdese) in Italy;
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church of Italy (Chiesa Evangelica Luterana in Italia);
  • Herrnhut Brüdergemeinde (Herrnhuter Brüdergemeinde) - where same-sex unions have been permitted since 2014;
  • United Protestant Church of France (Église protestante unie de France);
  • United Protestant Church in Belgium (Verenigde Protestantse Kerk in België/Eglise protestante unie de Belgique);
  • The Scottish Episcopal Church - since 2017 same-sex church wedding is possible;
  • The Church of Scotland.

At the same time, the European evangelical churches are steadily, even if not rapidly growing. The Netherlands is one of the European countries where there is a clear growth of evangelical churches. Traditional churches in the Netherlands, such as the large Reformed denominations becoming liberal, are losing members at an increasing level to evangelical communities.

Evangelical churches are also gaining ground in France, especially among young people and those of African descent. This trend is also prevalent outside Europe.

Evangelical formations are becoming increasingly popular particularly in Latin American countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Bolivia.

The German Lutheran theologian Ulrich Parzany, like Keller, tries to answer this question in his 2017 book Was nun, Kirche? - Ein große Schiff in Gefahr: the church is growing in all parts of the world, except in Western Europe. What is the reason for this? Europe has the most beautiful and oldest church buildings. Nowhere else is the Church as rich in financial terms as in Europe - especially in Germany - yet it is the place with the lowest number of those attending worship.

As far as church attendance and membership are concerned, Parzany, analysing the situation in Germany, lists some startling figures: in 1990, the various regional churches belonging to the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) in Germany had a total of 29 422 000 members. By 2015, this figure had fallen to 22 272 000, representing 27.1 per cent of the German population. However, only 4 percent of the 22 million church members attend services on Sundays. Only 1 percent of protestants between the age of 16 and 29 attend worship services on a regular basis. And these are figures from 2017... The EKD, for example, lost 222,000 members just in 2018. Parzany's question is what about the remaining 96 percent. That means, with the 21 million remaining church members.

He lists several reasons that could have led to this situation. One is the devaluation of theological content. He mentions a volume by Klaus-Peter Jörns, former professor of practical theology at the Humboldt University of Berlin, entitled Die neuen Gesichter Gottes - Was die Menschen heute wirklich glauben (The new faces of God - What people really believe today, C. H. Beck, Munich, 1999). Jörns essentially examined what pastors actually believe in. He concluded that the majority of them no longer believe in most Christian doctrines, nor do they consider them important. In his study, Jörns refers to an article published in a previous issue of Focus magazine (1997/24) (Schock für die Kirchen: Nicht nur Laien, auch Pfarrer haben sich von vielen offiziellen Glaubensinhalten verabschiedet - Shock for the churches: Not only lay people, but also pastors have said goodbye to many official contents of beliefs). According to Jörns, theologians feel free to carry out their ministry in defiance of normative doctrinal and dogmatic traditions without this causing them any problems of conscience. There is a clear contradiction between what they are supposed to represent and what they actually stand for. According to Parzany, pastors-theologians would not even find common ground on the basic tenets of the Christian faith, such as the authority of Scripture, the sacrifice and atonement/death of Christ, the Christian message, the exclusivity of the gospel in terms of salvation, the definition of marriage, and the practice of baptism. Moreover, he believes that issues of substance can no longer be discussed in the church. Because of the postmodern influence, they see no point in debating the truth and the various doctrines of faith.

The main concern is credibility, 'authenticity', but it is not really obvious to understand what these terns mean in this context. With some exaggeration, German protestants have now been completely overwhelmed by progression. If you visit the website of EKD right now, you will soon realize that they dedicate a special section to information about options available in the regional churches for same-sex couples who want to get married. On the cover page (the author refers not to the official website of EKD, but to an article – ed.) there is a picture of a church tower - with the cross at the top - and a rainbow in the sky behind it, with the title: Segnung Homosexueller: Bunt wie ein Regenbogen (Blessing of homosexuals: colourful as a rainbow).

However, evangelical believers in Germany, despite all their internal differences, still adhere to biblical beliefs. On the imaginary tree of German evangelicalism there are four big branches from which smaller branches grow. The four large branches are the following four groups: Alliance Evangelicals, confessional evangelicals, Pentecostal evangelicals and independent evangelicals. Alliance evangelicals are also called "Pietistic evangelicals", since the Evangelische Allianz Deutschland has been strongly influenced by the Pietistic movement. The Pietist evangelicals were basically those who defended biblical truths and church creeds within the Protestant People's Church (Volkskirche) against the destructive influence of rationalism, extreme forms of biblical criticism and atheism. Pentecostal evangelicals include various Pentecostal churches and charismatic groups, and their theological orientation mostly conforms to the position of the aforementioned German Alliance. The group of independent evangelicals is relatively new compared to the first three: it includes congregations of a Baptist-Mennonite kind, consisting of German expatriates from Russia, as well as churches under the umbrella organisation Konferenz für Gemeindegründung (Conference for Church Planting) and part of the German Brethren movement. According to previous research on the evangelical movement in Germany, if all groups and their sub-groups are taken into account, there are about one million evangelical Christians in the country.

It is worth looking at another example: in the Church of Scotland, whose establishment goes back to the renowned Scottish reformer John Knox and is still the largest religious community in Scotland with almost half a million members, similar processes have been taking place. In 2009, an actual homosexual man was appointed to lead Queen's Cross Church in Aberdeen, who had divorced his wife and had a child. In 2015, the regulation was passed that gay ministers could enter into civil partnership with their partners. In 2016, same-sex "marriage" was voted for n the level of the ministers, and in 2018, regulation was passed allowing that same-sex couples - church members and churchgoers - could also be married (present wedding wow publicly to each other) in worship-liturgical settings. It is no coincidence that there have been pastors and congregations (some fifty congregations) who have left (or are planning to leave) the Kirk and joined another much smaller Reformed denomination, the Free Church of Scotland. It is perhaps no coincidence that in the period of a few years, the Church of Scotland's membership has dwindled from around 380,000 in 2014 to 325,000 in 2018, while attendance at Free Church of Scotland services has been steadily increasing, particularly among the young adults under 30s. This denomination is also growing in cities across the country, with Sunday school attendance increasing by 25 per cent in recent years (from 575 to 709 in 2013).

The increase and decrease in the number of members of churches/denominations may have sociological, social and cultural causes - or these aspects may have a combined effect - but perhaps it is justified to say that the above trends have primarily theological reasons.

In other words, the extent to which we adhere to the authority of the Scripture and to the truths revealed in it, to the message of the Gospel and to our religious identity based on it, is a factor in our survival.

The article was originally published in Reformátusok Lapja, the weekly magazine of RCH. The author is theologian and freshly ordained minister of RCH.

How do European countries differ in religious commitment?

Europeans generally are less religious than people in other parts of the world. But within Europe, there are sometimes sizable differences in levels of religious commitment, according to an analysis of recent Pew Research Center surveys in 34 countries.

Still, perceptions differ often more than actual contextual realities. The decline in registered membership, e.G., between 2009 and 2019 has been 15% for the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) and 17% in the Reformed Church in Hungary. According the the Pew Research survey, the proportion of those who say they attend worship services at least monthly is 24% in Germany, 20% in Great Brittain, and 17% in Hungary.