“American Religion, Contemporary Trends”*

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

Most Quaker groups I know of worry about growing. Whether they call it “outreach” or evangelism, whether they preach about it endlessly or only whisper furtively in the hallways, the desire, the need for more members and attenders hangs over Friends like an ever-present specter.

 This concern (obsession?) is as prevalent in large pastoral churches with many staff as it is in small silent meetings wondering how to pay the light bill. In response, barely a season goes by without a new outreach/evangelistic scheme popping up and seemingly catching fire, be it “friendship evangelism” for the pastorals or “Quaker Quest” among the unprogrammed liberals. Some are quite expensive, requiring training sessions, purchase of materials, consultants’ visits, and so forth.

And just as quickly, it seems, these programs fade, like last year’s must-have video game or a shark-jumping “reality” show. They recede, alas, because they don’t show results after the early flurry. And in the Quaker groups which are losing members most rapidly (you know who you are; your name is legion), an undertone of desperation can be detected in discussions about their future; if the tide can’t be turned, Friends, oblivion – denominational as well as congregational– lurks not far around the corner.

Where, the urgent query rises as eyes anxiously scan the clouded horizon, where can we find real help?

Right here, I’m pleased to report.

Mark Chaves has it all, in this slim, packed volume. A professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University, his American Religion, Contemporary Trends, sums up more than 40 years of careful, wide-ranging, and impartial survey research on U.S. Protestantism. And in this body of work are all the time-tested ingredients needed for solid, continuing church growth, which I’ll pass on to you presently, no extra charge.

But first, a bit of background. The overall picture of American Protestant Christianity which emerges in Chaves’s pages is not, at first blush, an optimistic one. For one thing, church attendance has been stagnant since at least the 1970s, and now there are signs of slow but gathering decline. (The trend seems clear, even though Americans obscure it by habitually lying to pollsters about their religiosity, claiming to attend church substantially more often than they actually do. (43-45))

But they haven’t fooled Chaves:“Any talk of increased religious participation in the United States in recent decades,” he declares flatly, “is baseless.” (47)

For another, the prospects for smaller congregations (which includes most Friends meetings) seem dim indeed: churchgoing Americans continue to flock to and swell the rolls of the so-called megachurches (65f), while the smaller ones dwindle: collection plates get emptier, and the main way their membership grows is older.

It used to be that this church shrinkage was primarily a liberal or “Mainline” problem, while evangelical bodies kept expanding, and took the differential as a sign of divine favor.

But that was then. In the past ten years, the Mainline virus has seeped across the Mason-Dixon line. (92, 131) Now even the once-mighty Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant association and one long under staunchly evangelical control, has been losing numbers and money bigtime. (Barna; Rankin; Stepp)

Meanwhile, the fastest-growing category on the religious landscape is the un-churched. (18f) Few of them are actually atheists (though non-theist numbers are on the rise as well), but they seem content to deal with God or Whoever on their own, thank you very much. Yet for the custodians of institutional religion, their indifference is just as great a calamity as if they were out-and-out unbelievers.

So, as Chaves repeats, anybody who tells you the U.S. is undergoing some kind of religious revival is either ignorant, or kidding: themselves, you or both.

Yet, amid the overall gloom, there are (non-mega) churches which are growing, some quite rapidly, and the reasons for their increase come down to a startlingly simple formula. Simple, but time-tested, and not limited to a particular doctrinal system.

What is it? Get out your tablets and prepare to pound the keys, Friends, because here it is:

The Guaranteed Formula For Church Growth

  1. Have lots of kids. And;
  2. Hang on to most of them.

That’s it. As  Chaves says, “Differential fertility has produced approximately 80 percent of the shifting fortunes of liberal and conservative Protestant churches.” (88)  Until the past generation, evangelicals had the growth drill down pat: their fertility was high, and busy youth ministries kept young people (and many parents) involved all the way through the high school years. (89)

The “retention difference,” Chaves explains, “probably exists because evangelical families place more emphasis on religion than mainline families do, and conservative churches involve young people in a denser social web of youth groups, church camps, and church-based socializing, all of which increase the chances that a young person will remain in the fold as an adult.” (90) After that much programming, even many young adults who wander off for a decade or so tend to drift back when they have kids of their own. Or at least, they did.

By the way, contrary to some reports, Chaves notes that only about 10 percent of youths who drop out of liberal churches then turn to the evangelicals. The rest then “drop in” to the “none-of- the-above-ites,” who don’t go to church at all. (87)

To repeat: if you want church growth, have lots of kids and keep most of them. That’s the law and the prophets. The once robust growth rate of evangelical churches, Chaves reiterates, came “because their families produced more children than did mainline families and because they retained the people they had better than liberal denominations did.” (91) Simple.

What? Is that reader resistance I’m already feeling? Did someone say it has to be more complicated than that?

Go ahead, cavil. Check it out for yourself (the book is short, barely 130 pages of widely-spaced, accessibly written text), and ponder the results. See if you find any way around it.

But what about all those nifty evangelism/outreach programs? Don’t they work?

Basically, no. Sure, some bring in newcomers, a few of whom will stay. But if you look only at the visitors coming in the front door, Friend, you will fail to notice the other attenders slipping out the side and back doors. Attrition is an ongoing fact. In the face of such erosion, outreach work is at best a wash, that maintains the status quo; except usually not quite.

By contrast, evidence for the efficacy of this “Guaranteed Formula” runs all through the research Chaves summarizes, and is widely confirmed from outside it too: the Amish and the Mormons are Exhibits A and B. Many Islamic groups are Exhibit I; Orthodox Jews are Exhibit J.

With the remedy in view, let’s look back at the

American Society of Friends, to gauge the implications.

One word sums them up: dire.

Overall, U.S. Quakers flunk the formula test on both counts. Our fertility is very low, and our retention record ranges from tepid to dreadful.

On the one side, liberal Friends have for years been under the sway of an eco-orthodoxy that, stripped of softening verbiage, regards having children as a sin against earth. For instance, the leading Friends environmental group offers grants for Quaker men to have vasectomies, and urges fertile Friends to consider adoption rather than bearing children themselves. (Vasectomy; Adoption) Clearly, from their perspective, one of the many crises facing the world is that there are too many Quakers, and they are eager to help us eliminate ourselves. On the other side, our religious ed programs are, to put it kindly, mostly unpersuasive, and often mainly a flimsy faith in osmosis.

The record among most pastoral groups is, if possible, even worse, though perhaps for different reasons. The Clerk of a pastoral yearly meeting that was once one of the largest, but has shrunk to half the size in a generation, summed them up for me this way: “We’re too male, too pale, and too stale.”

They also fit the latest research, that Chaves only alludes to, which shows that most evangelical groups have definitely lost their mojo on the formula front: not only are birthrates down, but despite frenetic effort, they are hemorrhaging  young adults, legions of whom are voting with their feet against the spirit of rightwing obscurantism and repression that largely reigns among their churches.(91, 99f; Barna).

For both wings of Quakerdom, fertility is being further suppressed by the ongoing economic drag of the current economic depression: births in the U.S. have fallen for each of the past four years.(CBS; CDC) So for many younger Quakers today, starting a family is seen as too great a financial risk.

Well. In light of this bleak survey, what is to be done?

The great economist John Maynard Keynes liked to speak of “animal spirits” as a mysterious source of “positive decisions”, be they “moral or hedonistic or economic.” They involve trust, confidence, optimism, and a sense of adventurous courage, all of which can be affected by many environmental factors. (Keynes)

Clearly, American Friends could use a major boost in their “animal spirits.” Those in their fertile years could begin seeking one by rethinking (and rejecting) the propaganda that stigmatizes producing Quaker kids as treason against the planet. Older Quakers could encourage them in this overdue reappraisal, then focus on the retention side, supporting young parents, and helping create and staff the “denser social webs” that knit meeting communities together and keep youth (among others) engaged. For pastorals, it would also help to cut out the “Christian” Right malarkey.

I’m well aware that these suggestions are easy to make, but hard to execute, for a myriad of reasons, both internal and external. The temptation to avoid dealing with them, and instead send a committee running after the latest outreach/evangelism nostrum is understandable. But to paraphrase the Catholic teachers of my youth, extra ecclesiam, nulla salus: outside the Guaranteed Formula, there is little hope in sight.

Chaves does not mince words: “The religious trends I have documented [of the past 40+ years] point to a straightforward general conclusion: no indicator of traditional religious belief or practice is going up . . . . If there is a trend, it is toward less religion.” (110) 

Given the record amply documented in this compact, eye-opening survey, our respective status quos and their selflimiting orthodoxies are also a recipe for continued Quaker decline, or worse.

Keynes was no Quaker, but his words still resonate: “Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as the result of animal spirits – a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average   of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.”

I’m not an economist, but I suspect that if Keynes had been a Quaker, his rendering of “animal spirits” for us today would be what they used to call, “Grace.”

Other Works Cited:

Barna Group, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church,” September 28, 2011,

CBS News, US Birthrate drops for fourth year;

CDC report on birthrate: 

Keynes, John M. (1936). The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London. Macmillan. pp. 161-162.

QEW: Quaker Earthcare Witness, ‘Men-4-Men,” Vasectomy grants:

———-, Adoption:

Rankin, Russ, Lifeway Christian Resources, “Southern Baptists decline in baptisms, membership, attendance.” June 9, 2011.

Stepp, Laura Sessions, “Why Young Evangelicals Are Leaving Church,” Special for CNN, December 16, 2p0011.


*American Religion, Contemporary Trends. Mark Chaves. Princeton University Press, 135 pages.

Leave a comment