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Is Church Attendance Declining?

A new study says no. Also: Russian seminaries' enrollment woes, and more news on Christian higher education.
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The latest issue (Sep. 2007) of the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion includes an article by Stanley Presser of the University of Maryland and Mark Chaves of Duke University about whether there has been a linear decline in church attendance.

Presser and Chaves take a different route to tracking religious attendance in their study. They think that when asked directly about attending church, people tend to overreport their presence in the pews. In this study, the two sociologists pay more attention to time-use studies in which individuals say what they did on days of the week to avoid asking participants directly about church attendance.

According to the time-use studies, Presser and Chaves conclude that religious attendance did decline slightly in the period between 1950 and 1990. Mainline Protestant and Catholic service attendance also declined over that period. According to the authors, there is currently no theory of religious change that accounts for periods of stability alternating with periods of decline.

However, Presser and Chaves determine that attendance has been stable (at about 25%) since the 1990s. That finding challenges the idea that our society is increasingly secular, or that the changes since the 1990s—technological improvements, the increase of scientific knowledge, and urbanization— have any impact on church attendance.

There may be no social scientific theory to explain a small decline during the period in question, when mainline Protestant denominations and Catholic attendance was also declining in the wake of Vatican II.

Protestant Seminaries in Russian Higher Ed

In an earlier edition of Evangelical Minds, I interviewed Perry Glanzer about Russian Orthodox schools tending toward serious faith and learning integration. We didn't discuss Protestants. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the Russian government shut down many private schools for fire violations and for failing to offer a quality education.My sense that the government might be using safety and quality concerns as a pretext for political coercion deepened when I heard from Dr. Glanzer that the OMS Seminary (evangelical in doctrine) had been briefly shut down over the summer.

Pursuing the matter further, I interviewed Southern Wesleyan University's Mark Elliott, who has published the East-West Report for several years. Elliott noted that OMS had quickly been able to re-open after working with the Russian government. He added, however, that he knew of a case in Siberia where a church had been shut down for practicing education without a license. The church's offense amounted to offering Sunday school lessons along with the worship service.

Despite the above alarms, Professor Elliott is convinced Protestants have more immediate problems than the government when it comes to maintaining educational institutions.

Protestant seminaries in Russia have experienced a drastic drop in enrollment during the past few years. Though the schools benefited from an early surge when Russia opened up in the early '90s, Elliott attributes the phenomenon in part to the church as forbidden fruit. There were 40 Protestant seminaries in 1990. That number increased fivefold by 2000. Today, funding from the West is declining and the schools have failed to find indigenous income to replace it. At the same time, seminarians are figuring out they can't earn a living because most churches are currently unable to support full-time pastors.

Other factors play a part, too. Churches and senior pastors become suspicious of whether theological sophistication is tantamount to liberalism and are less likely to support the seminaries over time.

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Related Elsewhere:

Previous Evangelical Minds columns include:

Innocence and Ambition at Patrick Henry College | A review of God's Harvard. Also: sorting out the faithful in Catholic higher education. (October 29, 2007)
Do Children of the 'Unequally Yoked' Do Worse? | Plus: Ultimate questions about colleges' core curriculum and other news from the higher education world. (October 11, 2007)
Church, State, and the Founding of America | Plus: Studying pagans, humanities vs. religion, and more. (September 27, 2007)
Christian Smith on Why Christianity 'Works' | Plus: Baylor publishing woes, and other news from the higher education world. (September 13, 2007)
David Dockery on Christian Higher Ed's Key Challenges | Plus: Fearing secularization and "fundamentalization" and whether "Christian economics" exist. (August 30, 2007)
Why College Doesn't Turn Kids Secular | Also: Richard Land on the footbath controversy, Falwell's big Liberty gift, and other stories about higher education and research. (August 16, 2007)
Christian Higher Education Goes to Russia | Plus: One more argument against U.S. News rankings, and Silver Ring Thing goes to Harvard. (August 2, 2007)

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