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A man prays in church.

Editor's note: This commentary is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.

In 1984, soon after arriving at my first duty station as a new Army chaplain, I was introduced to a chaplain considerably more senior in rank and age than me, representing a different faith from mine. He warmly welcome me to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, as the newest chaplain on post. He was clearly anxious to talk with me. It was obvious he had something on his mind that he wanted to say. I was very surprised by what followed.

In a declarative tone he said: “My church was once like yours!” After what seemed to be a lengthy pause, his tone shifted to a sadness: “My church once had strict standards; it once held to a conservative theology; and there was a time when my church expected sacrifice, including the tithe of our people.” After another pensive pause he continued: “My church once believed in the supernatural, and it once was growing.”

Thirty-three years later, his heavy-hearted expressions still weigh on me. Through the years, I dissected and studied what happened to his church, and contemplated the adverse effect it had on him and his faith. I was determined to learn from the errors of his religion and others now in decline, hoping never to contribute to similar outcomes for my own faith.

Fewer in the pews

The religion of my former chaplain colleague was part of the family of mainline Protestants in America. The mainline Protestants, the Catholics and now more recently the Southern Baptists appear to be in numerical decline in America. All of them were at one time experiencing extraordinary growth, becoming the largest religious traditions in America, but now all are scrambling to manage the rapid, downward spiral of their membership rolls.

According to the Pew Research Center, each of these religious traditions are becoming endangered by an aging membership. Among them, there are more members over 60 than there are between the ages of 18 and 30. As increasing numbers of the older generation are dying, there are fewer being raised in the faith to replace them and the increasing numbers choosing to abandon their religion. Fewer younger adherents are getting married, and those that do get married are having fewer children. Overlaying these demographic developments is the dramatic decrease in the numbers being converted as new adherents.

Again, according to the Pew Research Center, mainline Protestants, from 2007 to 2014, had a net loss of just over 5 million adult members. While these particular Protestants have been numerically declining since the 1970s, their decline in the last decade has become much more acute, with no evidence the downward trend will change. Very few demographers give them any chance for a resurgence. The trend is like a centrifugal force too overpowering for it to be stopped and then reversed.

In the same time period, from 2007 to 2014, the American Catholic Church experienced a net lost of just over 3 million adult members. While the Catholic decline does not appear to be as threatening as the decline the mainline Protestants are experiencing, their numbers are aided by the fact that 22 percent of Catholics in the United States are Hispanic immigrants born in Latin America.

If immigration from Latin America is stopped or even reduced, legal or otherwise, the Catholic Church will experience a devastating loss. Catholic churches all over America, in areas where there has been significant Hispanic membership growth, will be closed with little prospect of ever being reopened.

In 2015, the Southern Baptist Convention experienced a net loss of over 200,000 members. The numerical decline of Southern Baptists is newer and not yet nearly as grave. Nevertheless, according to the Southern Baptist’s chief demographer, Ed Stetzer, if the combined demographic trends continue, by 2050, the 15.3 million Southern Baptist membership roll will be cut in half.

Over the last several years, Stetzer has repeatedly warned that the Southern Baptist Convention must engage a strategy that makes the denomination much more appealing to racial diversity if it has any hope of reversing its decade-long decline going forward.

The future for these religions looks bleak. And, given all that these and other religious denominations add to our nation's social fabric, this is a loss for the United States.

In fact, if these demographic trends continue, within no more than five decades, these religious traditions in America may exist in name only. Beyond the demographic challenges they face, there is a conversion crisis. Conversions are not coming close to compensating for increased deaths, low birthrates and adherents abandoning their religions.

Religions on the rise

Meanwhile, the charismatic, evangelical religions are experiencing a remarkable growth rate, filling the expanding void left by failing faiths. Their adherents are younger and they are having more children. Fortunately for them, nearly every important demographic trend is pointing positively in their direction. Their charismatic worship and dynamic evangelization is rapidly increasing the number of converts, with some coming from the declining religions. If their rapid growth trend continues, in just a few decades, they will be crowned the largest religious traditions in America.

Studying the trends impacting religions growth, a bell-curve theory for religion’s success and failure was discovered. The elements that undergird the development of the bell-curve theory were identified first by Dean Kelly in his 1972 study commissioned by the National Council of Churches, titled Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion. Kelly’s very disruptive research was followed by Rodney Stark’s more recent study published in his 2008 book, titled "What Americans Really Believe: New Findings from the Baylor Surveys of Religion." Add to that even more recent findings reported by two Canadian researchers, David Haskell and Kevin Flatt, in their 2016 study, titled Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy.

The bell-curve theory for religious success and failure based on numerical growth postulates that every successful religion grows because it is demanding, strict and nonconforming, while simultaneously promulgating a peculiar, otherworldly message that appeals to both the heart and mind, claiming a religious market share never tapped into or abandoned by declining faiths.

The bell-curve theory predicts that as the successful religion rapidly grows, climbing up the bell-curve, it eventually attracts and develops sophisticated clergy and adherents who are more educated and prosperous. These sophisticated clergy struggle relating to the spiritual needs of the less educated and less prosperous adherents and investigators, usually constituting half or more of their religion’s membership and investigator pool.

Unaware of the consequences on growth, the sophisticated clergy dismiss their religion’s peculiar, otherworldly teachings they consider intellectually inexplicable and socially unsettling.They begin to shift to self-actualization sermons sprinkled with a few scriptures, while advancing a social advocacy agenda that tends to politicize their pulpits away from promulgating supernatural, salvation teachings and championing the kingdom of God on earth.

Thereafter, their religion’s rate of growth begins to slow until it flattens at the top of the bell-curve. The churches then react if not panic. First in practice, and then in policy, they begin to accommodate and conform, hoping to push the rate of growth back up. They reasonably conclude that if their religion is less demanding and more conforming, it should be appealing to more adherents and investigators alike. This appears to be a fatal flaw.

Undoubtedly, religion becomes more acceptable and perhaps increasingly popular when churches accommodate and conform to societal trends. Nevertheless, when they do so, their once unique religion is not pushed back into growth. Instead, it is unwittingly pushed over the precipice of the bell-curve, sliding down into the statistical pit unable to climb out. According to the bell-curve theory, this counterintuitive phenomenon ultimately happens to every religion that accommodates worldliness.

Why? Because a religion that becomes increasingly conforming and less demanding inevitably attracts less-devoted adherents. These less-devoted adherents are less willing to sacrifice to support a rigorous religious life and consequently they are less inspired to share their faith with others. No religion can endure long with apathetic adherents at ease. According to the bell-curve theory, the symbiotic relationship between sophisticated clergy and less-devoted adherents unavoidably results in decline.

The bell-curve theory also becomes predictive when churches insist on blaming outside influences — such as secular influences — for their religion’s decline. These clergy are in denial, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the compromising concessions instituted along the way that attract only the less devoted, undermining their ability to impassion a commitment that could reverse the decline. If anything, the secular forces they are blaming for the religion’s decline were invited into their sanctuaries the moment they began to make concessions conforming to societal trends.

Lessons learned

Religion primarily exists to guide its adherents into eternal salvation and rescue them from being overwhelmed by today’s worldliness all around them. Blaming secularism for failures is tantamount to admitting that religion can no longer provide a refuge for adherents. Is there any wonder then, why so many are leaving their religious traditions, seeking another religion or something else altogether to satisfy their needs?

How could today’s churches ever face the early Christian leaders and explain to them that the religious environment is too challenging for religion to prosper? According to Rodney Stark’s book, titled "The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion," from 40 AD to 340 AD, Christianity grew faster than all other religions under the most hostile environment imaginable, caused by unmatched profanity, paganism and persecution throughout all of Christian history.

Unlike so many of the clergy today, the early Christian leaders instinctively understood those with the capacity to be truly devoted are yearning to be taught about the divine, especially the supernatural that empowers their lives with eternal significance as they face the daily drudgery of mortality. The devoted seek the faith and holiness they know is required to please God. They will voluntarily obey and sacrifice for everlasting truths, and they expect their clergy to preach those truths without equivocation or reservation.

But when all that is served up to them is a diet of the mundane, the devoted become spiritually malnourished and too enfeebled to help convert others. Many impassively just wander away hungering — hungering to be spiritually fed by someone or something that can. The stark reality of the bell-curve theory is that a religion's success eventually becomes the enemy of its faith — spiritually starving it.

Yet, there is still hope the bell-curve theory can reveal the cipher to reinvigorate a numerically declining religion. Expectedly, it can only be discerned by churches that will consecrate themselves to a code of spiritual courage, no matter the consequences. It can only be discerned by clergy not afraid or embarrassed to boldly promulgate the peculiar, miracle messages once cherished by their religion. For these discerning clergy and their devoted disciples who want to regrow their once vigorous religion, it always is and must be “the kingdom of God or nothing.”

After all these years reflecting on the forlornness of my former chaplain colleague, I have concluded that his disappointment and loss of faith could have been avoided if only his religion had been aware of the bell-curve theory effect, and then responded accordingly before it was too late.

37 comments on this story

If the clergy of his religion realized that intellectualizing the gospel away from its miracle messages would have devastating consequences for the converted and unconverted alike, if they realized that to retain growth they had to maintain strict standards and high demands on their adherents and if they realized that politicizing their pulpits with social advocacy would be divisive to the devoted, then perhaps my former chaplain colleague would have been spared sorrow and disappointment in his denomination. And perhaps it would still be growing.

Stuart C. Reid is a former U.S. Army chaplain and a former Utah state senator who lives in Ogden.