October 31, 2020

The Evangelical Collapse: A Statistical Analysis Part II by Michael Bell

Guest Blogger Michael Bell (The Eclectic Christian) returns for his second round of statistical evaluations of “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.”

As I was time limited when taking my first statistical look at “The Coming Evangelical Collapse“, I wanted to follow up with a few more observations about some of Michael Spencer’s statements:

1. Denominations will shrink, even vanish.

Much to my surprise, the decline in evangelicals in the U.S. has already begun. The Association of Religious Data Archives (ARDA) lets you generate maps to visibly see the changes. The maps shown here show the difference in Evangelicals between 1990 and 2000. Note how the colors have lightened over 10 years, particularly in the south-east.

U.S. Evangelicals 1990
U.S. Evangelicals 2000

You can visit the ARDA site to create your own maps on a national, regional, and/or denominational level.

When we look at the age composition of churches in the data from the American Religious Identity Survey (ARIS), it is clear that those who will be impacted the most will be those denominations who call themselves Baptist. The most significant growth is coming from those Christians who say they have no denominational affiliation. Two thirds of these are under the age of fifty. It is clear from the data that there is and will be a move away from denominational identification.

2. Fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.

According to the National Congregations Study 50% of churches in the U.S. now (2006-2007) have a congregation fewer than 75 on a Sunday morning. This is down from a median of 80 in 1998. While these figures are for all churches, and not just evangelical ones, the data from Canada shows that Evangelical Churches have similar attendance ratios to all Protestant churches. The issue is that as Evangelical churches go through the generational horizon that we see is about to happen from the ARIS Data, those churches will become less and less viable.

I read a study a number of years ago that showed that when a church hired a second (associate) pastor, that the related increase in attendance and its accompanying tithing paid for the second pastor on average within 18 months. (I was graduating from seminary at the time, and tried to use the study to get churches to hire me. 🙂 ) The converse is also true. Once a church starts a slide and is forced to lay off pastoral staff, or go to part-time or lay pastors, it is an extremely hard trend to reverse. Churches are going to have to make some difficult decisions, and for some it is going to mean closing their doors.

3. Two of the beneficiaries will be the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions

According to the ARIS report, Catholics have grown by 24% between 1990 and the present day. This growth was very regionalized and fueled by immigration as the following quotation shows:

Catholic numbers and percentages rose in many states in the South and West mainly due to immigration from Latin America. Catholics increased their share in California and Texas to about one-third of the adult population and in Florida to over one-fourth. In terms of numbers they gained about 8 million adherents in these three states in the past two decades. At the same time the proportion of Catholics was eroded in other parts of the country, mainly in the Northeast Region, where Catholic adherents fell from 43 percent to 36 percent of the adult population. New England had a net loss of one million Catholics. Big losses in both the number of Catholic adherents and their proportion occurred also in Massachusetts, and in Rhode Island, the nation’s most heavily Catholic state where the proportion of Catholics dropped from 62 percent to 46 percent. New York state lost 800,000 Catholics and they dropped from 44% to 37% of the adult population.

The age composition of the Catholic church is virtually identical to the general population meaning that they are not facing a generational horizon. So the Catholics will benefit from the Evangelical collapse in that they should have stable numbers over the next decade and will become a larger proportion of the Christian community, and thus will have a larger voice from within that community. (Please do not get into arguments over the definition of Christian here, as it is really tangential to the purpose of the post.)

The question of whether they will be beneficiaries of the evangelical collapse numerically would still be open to debate. The previous ARIS study of 2001 as reported at ReligiousTolerance.org showed that in the dynamic movement of individuals in and out and between denominations, Catholics lost twice as many adherents as they gained. Unfortunately the question that generated this data was not asked during the current ARIS study, so we do not know if this number has changed.

Orthodox Christians still represent a tiny percentage of overall Christians in the U.S., but the data that has been supplied by ARDA shows some significant growth.

4. Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity will become the majority report in evangelicalism

According to ARIS, Pentecostals / Charismatics have grown from 5,647,000 to 7,948,000 over the last 18 years, an increase of 41%. Their growth however has slowed somewhat over the last 7 years and they too are facing a generational horizon. Their horizon however, is not as bad as the Baptists. Numerically they will be hard pressed to be the most significant group in the Evangelical American world in forty years, but they will certainly be much stronger in relation to groups like the Baptists than they are today.

In one sense however, they are already the majority report, and that is in the area of worship. While I do not have the numbers for this, I am sure that most readers have seen that the vast majority of churches in the U.S. have adopted a more “charismatic/contemporary” style of worship. These days you would be hard pressed to differentiate the worship style between many Baptist and Pentecostal churches.

5. Evangelicalism needs a “rescue mission” from the world Christian community.

Michael is not alone in this thought. Consider some of these thoughts and statistics as compiled by the Navigators organization.

According to George Barna: “With its 195 million unchurched people, America has become the new mission field. America has more unchurched people than the entire populations of all but 11 of the world’s 194 nations.”*

According to Lost in America, by Tom Clegg and Warren Bird, 2001: “The unchurched population in the United States is so extensive that, were it a nation, it would be the fifth-largest on the planet. . . . Researchers and analysts describe North America as the world’s third-largest mission field.”

According to Os Guiness, in World Evangelization, Vol. 18, No 65, 1993: “The three strongest national challenges to the Gospel in the modern world are Japan, Western Europe, and the United States.”

According to George Gallup in 1997, only ten years ago: “More than 44% of American adults 18 and over are unchurched; 120 million Americans have no substantial Christian memory.”

Barna affirms Gallup. Consider: “America’s secularization has gone from only 15% in the 1950s up to 40% in 2001; and headed for 60% percent by 2010!” (Secularization means basing the decisions of one’s life on a secular humanist, relativist moral world view. Judeo-Christian values and the Bible are no longer the moral foundation of decision making in life for the vast majority of Americans.)

According to America: An Emerging Mission Field in World Christian Encyclopedia, Second Edition p.27: “In 2000, the United States sent out 118,200 missionaries, but it also received 33,200. Ironically, the world’s largest missionary-sending country has now become the world’s largest missionary-receiving country.” Not to mention:

o The world’s largest Buddhist temple is located in Boulder, CO, USA!
o The world’s largest Muslim training center is in New York City, USA!
o The world’s largest training center for transcendental meditation is in Fairfield, Iowa, USA!

According to Leighthon Ford, evangelist and Christian leader, “North America is now the largest mission field in the English-speaking world” (Cities’ and surrounding areas’ concentrated populations make them obvious targets for sharing the Gospel).

The number of churches in Chicago has decreased by 900 in the last 10 years! In many cases what were once churches are now condominiums.


I wrote these two posts in support of Michael, not because I, nor he for that matter, take any joy in what is going on. I hope that these can help serve as a wake up call to the Evangelical community that the status quo position is not a viable one. Many have asked where is the role of God and the Holy Spirit in all of this? Well I for one see this as a wake up call to pray, and to seek God’s direction and guidance in all of this. We believe in the good news of Jesus Christ and we want to see his name continued to be honored and lifted up.

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Michael Bell


  1. Christopher K.

    What Janelle is saying about the Evangelical churches matches up with my observations as well. Also, most apologetics is using the Bible to try to convince non-Bible believers of the truth. It can work so much better if you start where they are.

  2. Yes, Evangelicals and mainstream conservative republicans are pretty much synonymous in the public eye. This was a good thing in 2000, but a disaster in 2009. Whatever survives of Evangelicalism, this lesson should never be forgotten.

    It would be profitable if Evangelicals would sit down and do some soul searching over the question of what religion is and why a person would need it. If the only thing you can offer a prospective adherent is a bureaucratic system of rules and a strict code of conduct, not joining feels like the more attractive option.

  3. Scott, dictionary.com gives this definition for Evangelical:

    1. pertaining to or in keeping with the gospel and its teachings. 2. belonging to or designating the Christian churches that emphasize the teachings and authority of the Scriptures, esp. of the New Testament, in opposition to the institutional authority of the church itself, and that stress as paramount the tenet that salvation is achieved by personal conversion to faith in the atonement of Christ. 3. designating Christians, esp. of the late 1970s, eschewing the designation of fundamentalist but holding to a conservative interpretation of the Bible. 4. pertaining to certain movements in the Protestant churches in the 18th and 19th centuries that stressed the importance of personal experience of guilt for sin, and of reconciliation to God through Christ.
    5. marked by ardent or zealous enthusiasm for a cause.

    To me, and in the simplest way, to anyone who is honest, this describes any of the Characters in scripture who were designated as part of the faithful people of God. How can we look at John the Baptist and not see this description as a perfect fit. I understand that everyone (even liberal Christians who don’t claim any authority in scripture at all) say they are interpreting scripture rightly – believe me I understand that. I am arguing, fundamentally, on a much simpler level. My response is not the problem. It’s those who refuse to see the simplicity of biblical Christian faith as taught by Christ and the disciples.

    It’s also apparently a “problem” for some here because a historical movement is changing. So what. I think those who believe in the fundamentals of the historic Christian faith like Christ and the disciples did are the true people of God. In the last century that has obviously (for those of simplistic honesty) been centered in the fundamentalist and Evangelical movements. Of course those movements are in flux and now changed to something else but again who cares. Start churches that teach the simple truths of scripture and let history (or those in this type of forum) call it what they will. In the final analysis it is only the continuing people of God – regardless of what flavor or tradition they may be a part of. Perhaps in regard to the more technical discussion here that would be an alternative definition – but according to this very discussion not wrong nor the problem. The problem to me seems to be those who are trying to hold static a movement that just can’t be nailed down. Isn’t this true in all of church history? (Answer: Yes) The kingdom of God continues however in spite of those who do their best to stand in the ashes and act concerned that the fire has moved on.

  4. J write: “Forget it, IM: This place is a Whack-a-Mole of ignorance and paranoia. I’ll be over at Pharyngula if you need me.”

    J, J, J: Having spent some time on the Pharyngula site I can safely say that ignorance and paranoia are not restricted to Christians.

  5. The Raven, we “Evangelicals” (I will take that label if it helps but really could care less) do need to do some soul searching because our fight for the major moral issues of our day in the culture have brought us together closely with the Republican party. We do run the risk, because of that, of becoming like the liberal mainline churches with virtually no difference in worldview from say an Obama or a Clinton.

  6. Janelle, how about some higher thought informed by the very Word of God or from the perspective of Christ (that would be one of total belief in the authority of scripture allowing it to govern the totality of our lives and beings as the final authority in all matters)?

  7. quote: “Forget it, IM: This place is a Whack-a-Mole of ignorance and paranoia. I’ll be over at Pharyngula if you need me.”

    P.Z. Myers’ site? LOL! You’re kidding, right? I’m a historian and thus can’t speak to the contributions that atheist scientists such as Myers and Dawkins have made to their fields. From what I’ve read of both of these men, however, they are both arrogant and read everything through the narrow, outdated lens of logical Positivism. They are the equivalent of atheist fundamentalists. Their grasp of history, religion and philosophy is woefully bad, though of course that doesn’t stop them from making wild statements about things they know little about. But hey, I guess they are scientists. So that makes them an authority on everything, right? Remarkably, Dawkins and Myers even seem to think their ignorance of religion and theology is a point of pride. Also, it is almost as if they didn’t get the memo that almost all philosophers abandoned Positivism thirty or forty years ago due to its epistemological flaws.

    There are some strange people who post on this site. But if you are leaving it for PZ Meyers’ site all I can say is that you are going from a place filled with “ignorance and paranoia” as you say to a site filled with ignorance and arrogance.
    I guess you just preferred flavor of fundamentalism is “science” (or rather Positivism) instead of Baptist.


  8. Ben, thanks for the reply. I am a bit confused, though. You seem to imply that I don’t understand evangelicalism, but then you wrote that we need to “Start churches that teach the simple truths of scripture and let history (or those in this type of forum) call it what they will.”

    So you’re saying I don’t understand something that doesn’t yet exist? If the article says something is collapsing, then that thing must already exist.

    Whatever the case, I am picking up that you are dissatisfied with the general state of the contemporary church and that the ideal pursuit should be to teach the simple truths Christ taught.

    Can I infer, then, that theology needs to be discarded, as does doctrine since Jesus didn’t teach these? Don’t need the Nicene Creed, either. The Sacraments are unnecessary, too.

    You actually think Jesus walked around for a few years, spoke in riddles, told his followers to spread the message and died on a Cross but didn’t want 2000 years of believers to wonder “why” and “how”? He wants us to emulate that 3 year period and never develop the ideas he shared? I’d say even St Paul failed your test, then.

  9. *Also, it is almost as if they didn’t get the memo that almost all philosophers abandoned Positivism thirty or forty years ago due to its epistemological flaws.*

    I’m trying to think of a less-influential modern profession than “philosophers”. But I can’t come up with anything.

  10. *I guess you just preferred flavor of fundamentalism is “science” (or rather Positivism) instead of Baptist.*

    Pretty much, yeah.

  11. quote: “I’m trying to think of a less-influential modern profession than “philosophers”. But I can’t come up with anything.”

    Well, academics in general aren’t all that influential these days. Most people in our society would prefer to watch Britney Spears sing some vacuous ditty than read a book that discusses serious ideas, especially a work of philosophy.

    But who cares about what is influential or not? Modern Western society is so shallow that all kinds of mindless drivel is influential. What counts is truth and the pursuit of truth. I find it interesting that those who still embrace Positivism either don’t know or don’t care that those who actually study epistemology have long abandoned Positivism as logically untenable. Much of modern atheism assumes an epistemology that to some extent is for most philosophers what literal, six-day creationism is for most scientists. In short, the atheism of men such as Myers and Dawkins is just another form of intellectually bankrupt fundamentalism.


  12. Related to this article: I am a College Financial Aid Planner, and I see the lack of commitment to the Christian faith manifested through too many parents that are willing to send their child to a godless/atheistic college at a crucial time in the child’s life. It’s no wonder so many lose their faith.
    This has saddened and surprised me.
    For this and other reasons I wrote a book called “A Heavenly College Education on an Earthly Budget.”
    It is a personal passion and ministry of mine to get the word out to parents about the consequences of not helping their child gain a conviction and commitment to the faith early on and through the college years.
    The book is available on my website http://www.leemartinson.com or on sites such as Amazon, or Barnes and Noble.

  13. “He [Jesus] wants us to emulate that 3 year period….”

    Don’t knock it until you have done it. I did it (as an “apostle”) for a week in October.

    After my wife of 40 years threw me out (I’m “crazy,” you understand)I gave away what I had (on me) and planted myself on the street with nowhere to go. Then Father became very real to me, and it was the most incredible experience I have ever had.

    But I just couldn’t maintain; the sheer intensity of became more than I could bear. So I’ve settled down in Vietnam.

    (My wife is right, of course.)

  14. “Wow. There are so many unexamined assumptions in there that I’m not even going to touch it.”

    Good for you! It wasn’t posted for an atheist to debate the assumptions. I threw this out there to see if anyone knew enough about the research to provide a helpful response. Studies such as this can be helpful and they have their place, but to suggest that they are conclusive is a failure to recognize an infinite number of factors.

    One of the contributions of the decline is related to the passing of its older members. Depending on the details it can make a difference considering the baby boom generation.

    America needs revival, and I do not mean spuratic emotionalism. A spiritual decline is nothing new for any nation, including America. We have seen revivals in the past, I do not think it is presumptuous to think that He can do it again.

    I think that Os Guiness also makes an ineresting observation in regards to the impact of modernity on church life. This is something that is seldomly looked at.

  15. The key to the whole issue is stated succinctly by JP on March 19, 2009:

    [quote]America needs revival, and I do not mean spuratic emotionalism. A spiritual decline is nothing new for any nation, including America. We have seen revivals in the past, I do not think it is presumptuous to think that He can do it again.

    To this I would add a quotation I found many years ago in an issue of the Our Daily Bread devotional booklet that said:

    [quote]”No Revival is more to be desired than that of systematic, personal Bible study!”[/quote]

    The truth of God is found not in any denomination or church or religious organization, but in the Bibl:, for Christians, this includes particularly the New Testament, yet not to omit the Old Testament.

    Read the Bible intensively and repeatedly by book. Start with the Gospel of John. Read three chapters a day to finish the book once a week, and do this for a month. Then move to some of the New Testament epistles or letters, starting with the little five-chapter book of 1 John hidden near the end of the New Testament. This book is so short you could read it once a day for an entire month. But at least read a chapter a day to finish it once a week. Do this for a month or more until you can literally think through the entire content with your eyes shut.

    Follow this reading with some of Paul’s shorter letters, 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians. Then tackle the longest of his letters, the book of Romans, reading two chapters a day each week day and three chapters on each day of the weekend to finish it once a week, and do this for a month or more.

    Then study the Bible by verses. To do this you need the right Bible study tools. Get them.

    To study a single verse, use Nelson’s Cross Reference Guide to the Bible, and look up all the verses that are given for any verse that particularly strikes your attention during your normal Bible reading. You will find this resource demonstrates that the Bible explains itself far more than you ever realized. Looking up the references for a verse will repeatedly confirm and emphasize the truths of the verse you are studying with each reference you read.

    A careful study of the Gospel of John ought to convince you of the importance of winning others to Christ.

    If everyone who names the name of Christ followed this simple procedure we would see not an “Evangelical Collapse,” but an “Evangelical Revival,” and a Bible-based one at that.

  16. Sean McWilliams says

    Okay, to my thinking and experience that is nothing new. Over the past 20 years we have seen mainline Protestant lose people because of a liberal view of the Bible and the sinfulness of man It probably has been going on since 1970s when a watering down of scriptural relevance began to take place. While there were many evangelical Christians added into Christianity as a result of the Jesus revival, it did not greatly change academic Christianity that sought a cultural change through legislation – on both sides of the political spectrum.

    What I see in the article and nearly all the blog responses is a need to determine the definition of “Evangelicalism”. Is it a name that people/organizations attach to themselves in the hope that it will focus their followers to bring in people? Or, is it something that people outside ascribe to followers of Christ who have a desire to share Jesus with non-followers. To be a Christian – in the first century was a derisive word to describe Christ followers.

    Any church (regardless of denomination) that grows will be fervent worshippers (irregardless of musical style), passionate evangelists, diligent followers of Christ’s precepts, ministers to the hurting, and mentors (I should say disciples, but not sure if that word has much meaning anymore) to seekers of Jesus (the lost and the found). Any growing church – whether it is 75 or 15,000 will have those characteristics. The emphasis of any of these articles – to me – is not to chastise but to encourage the whole body. I read some of this and feel there is a level of haughtiness associated with a particular notion of Christianity.

    Cultural Christianity ceased to be relevant in the first century and is still irrelevant today. The church will always have ebbs and flows in the political, economic and even cultural power it has because of the inherent tendencies of man. I don’t care about strength in those areas as a programmed effort. If we ministers do our job, the outflow is the communities, states and nations are changed from the inside out, not through policies. While we do not support policies that are ungodly and should never approve public policies that are, our warfare is not against flesh and blood. The strength of The Church – The Bride – lies in one man or group of people who will follow Jesus wholeheartedly. Not in mass organization or mega anything. But to think that mega churches “should” fail before the “real” church becomes effective again is dillusional. We should never become disillusioned with THE CHURCH or our NATION or whatever. It is made up of people who falter and fall. Our expectancy should never be that people will “get it” one day. Our expectancy is that all fall short of the glory of God, but that He loved us and sent His son…to be a propitiation for our sin. Run the race set before us and don’t get side tracked. If I can influence or have the opportunity to influence a person in Asia, or Ohio or Siberia, I should share the Gospel. The time is not for us to shake off the dust from our shoes.

    Asian Christians can be effective in mission work to the U.S., but they will still have to effectively communicate to the lost. I see a lot of Catholics and Orthodox churches as being the stalwarts against radical Islam because of their numbers and their organizational structure. Cultural disruptions will always cause people to seek relevant messages. Economic or war problems are massive influences for people to get their lives morally right. The church (The Bride) of my generation is called to be relevant to my generation and mentoring the generation behind me and the one behind it. I have to seek the Lord and get His plan and lay hold of that call to reach my community. I can not close my door and say they have it wrong, or “I can’t touch that person because I would then become unclean”. That is sinful.

    Everyone of our national awakenings were full of people who reckoned that this life had less to give than the one to come (meaning eternal life with Jesus). I don’t know how have much of that in my life right now, but I do recognize that I need to continually stoke up my relationship with the Lord. I need to discipline my life and through that others are more likely to see Christ in me. I am the key – you are the key – my wife is the key, but the key simply starts with one and not the establishment of a new order.

    A message is only relevant when people speak it. If I don’t speak, then no one will hear, If I don’t go…How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? A message has to be relevant…it has to be relevant. Positivism, negativism, socialism, capitalism…I don’t care… “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”…but Paul got to know those people and his style was different in every city he went to. While he preached Jesus and Him crucified in every city, it was directed in a way that people heard it – it was relevant. Make use of every opportunity that is presented…

    Blessings and Aloha from Hilo

  17. I can remember a statistical study some years ago that forcasted the entire world would be saved within a certain time frame, if growth remained steady. That’s a pretty big “if”, but I reckon it at least was encouraging to know that missions was productive.

    An interesting note: I have been a part of the Assemlies of God for quite some time and it is interesting how that although it has been one of the fastest growing denominations in America, America does not have the largest membership. I only use this as an example as to the growth of the church in other continents. Today we are sending American missionaries to Europe, meanwhile other nations are already sending missionaries to America.