Christians in Europe and North America may be tempted to discouragement from recent cultural and social developments. Traditional Christian sexual mores are under assault like never before, headlined by the recent passage of a same-sex marriage bill in Ireland and the spectacle of Bruce Jenner undergoing “gender reassignment” surgery. Surveys indicate that the number of those who do not identify with a particular religion (“nones”) is on the rise while the number of self-identified Christians is dwindling. The news isn’t all bad for conservatives; those same surveys indicate that conservative churches are still growing numerically, albeit more slowly than the population. Mainline churches, on the other hand, are losing both in terms of raw membership and as a percentage of the population. For conservatives the answer is painfully obvious: why would someone identify with a church which is no different from the surrounding culture? There are other ways to do this that don’t require giving up one’s Sunday morning and Wednesday evening.
Nevertheless, on the whole things seem pretty grim for evangelicals in the Western world. But just as a reminder, Christianity is growing in the rest of the world with the exception of the Middle East. In Latin America, Africa, and large parts of Asia, the faith continues to spread. As far as cultural moments go, this is nothing new. Europe and North America have experienced Awakenings. Other parts of the world are having theirs.
Sociologist Peter Berger has written of the end of secularization theory – the idea that as society became increasingly modern and scientific, religion would decline. Ever since the Enlightenment atheists have dreamed for the end of religion. America was always an outlier in this regard, which might give some hope to the godless that their dreams are finally coming true. Berger sees it differently. Rather than seeing the end of religion, he recently has asked if evangelicals are winning the world. He takes his cue from the title of an article in the trendy German magazine, Der Spiegel, which chronicles the growth of evangelical (particularly charismatic) churches in Germany.
Berger agrees with another sociologist, David Martin, who attributes the modern growth of the church in part to the Protestant work ethic. But Berger adds another hypothesis to this: namely, that Christianity is the most modern of available large religions today due to its emphasis on accepting Jesus as a personal decision. This, he argues, fits perfectly with the modern emphasis on individualism. Berger acknowledges that such an idea (that Christianity is the most modern of major religions) would seem absurd to most secularists, who see evangelical Christianity as hopelessly out of step with modernity and accepted historical and scientific beliefs. He specifically mentions ideas such as the earth being only about 6,000 years old, rejection of evolution, acceptance of divine intervention, and (of all things) acceptance of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch as areas where evangelicals are seen as out of sync with modernity. One could, of course, quibble about how much homogeneity there is among evangelicals on any of these points (for the record, I myself go along with all of these save the age of the earth), but Berger still notes that lots of modern people, including engineers, surgeons, and computer techies hold to these beliefs and yet continue to live and work in the modern world.
Berger attributes this phenomenon to different “relevance structures,” and the fact that most people are not concerned about having logically coherent worldviews. On this latter point I would quite agree with him, except that I would have to add that I believe it is evangelicals and not secularists who have the more logically coherent worldview (but I digress). The take home value of this analysis is that not only is Christianity not on the decline around the world, but the continued remarkable growth of it is notable enough to require explanation from sociologists, and I believe will continue to confound progressives who keep hoping it will all just go away.