In my book Christ Among the Dragons, I wrote of a front page story in The New York Times titled “Old Church Becomes Mosque in Altered and Uneasy Britain” which told of a former Christian church in Clitheroe, England, that was to become a mosque.
A second article on the same day, a bit more buried but still prominent in length, was titled “After Two Years of Work, An Updated Tabernacle,” revealing how the Salt Lake Tabernacle, completed in 1867 by Mormon faithful and home to the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir, was nearing the completion of its two-year renovation. I took note of these two articles as they are indicative of the current rise in spirituality, but not necessarily to the benefit of Christianity.
My concern turned out to be even more prescient than I had feared.
The 2012 Religious Congregations and Membership (RCMS) Study, a study conducted once every ten years, was released this week. The headline is simple, but profound: “Mainline Protestants and Catholics who dominated the 20th century are literally losing ground to the rapid rise of Mormons and, increasingly, Muslims.”
Mormonism, for example, is “moving into more parts of the county than any other religious group, making it the fastest-growing faith in more than half of U.S. states.”
Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest, is indicative: Mormons grew there by 55 percent, while Catholics shrank by 7 percent.
Overall, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) “reported 2 million new adherents and new congregations in 296 counties where they didn’t exist a decade ago, making them the fastest-growing group in the U.S.”
So much for the tabernacle.
Now for the Mosque.
In terms of overall growth, Muslims came in second to the Mormons, “with growth of 1 million adherents in 197 new counties, to a total of about 2.6 million.” According to Dale Jones, a researcher who worked on the study as part of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, “Mosques have multiplied at a growth rate of about 50 percent.”
Consider the area in and around Orlando’s Orange County where, according to the RCMS study, growth exploded by a staggering 473 percent. Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, thinks the growth is actually double the amounts reported by the study.
Several explanations for the rapid rise of Muslims were suggested by the study, including “growth in the suburbs, an increased willingness by U.S. Muslims to stand and be counted, and more mosques being built to serve more worshippers.” Musri suggests the growth has been fueled by a wave of post-9/11 converts, American-born children of immigrants having kids of their own, and jobs in the booming medical industry.
So here is where we stand:
Mainline Protestant denominations and Catholics are in decline.
Even the largest evangelical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, are also exhibiting a steady, multi-year decline.
But the Mosque and the Tabernacle? Muslims are likely to outnumber Christians in Britain in just a few decades, and the Mormon church now claims over 14 million members, including 6 million in the United States.
As I wrote in Christ Among the Dragons, the reason we are losing ground so dramatically is two-fold:
First, passivity; we do not seem to feel it is urgent to reach people for Christ.
The second reason is hostility. Many Christians are intensely adversarial and view those outside of the faith as needing to go to hell.
Neither will make you particularly prone to outreach.
The irony is that neither Mormons or Muslims have such barriers. They are only too willing to reach out with urgency, and acceptance.
Which is precisely why they are the largest and fastest-growing.
James Emery White
James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons (InterVarsity Press).
On evangelical denominations such as the SBC: Southern Baptist churches baptized fewer people in 2008 for the fourth year in a row to reach the lowest level since 1987, and membership in the country’s largest Protestant denomination fell as well. Though there was a small uptick for 2009, figures released in 2011 for 2010 fared even worse. See “Southern Baptists Have Fewest Baptisms Since The 1950s And Are Losing Members,” Huffington Post. Read online.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.