Why Some Churches Decline While Others Grow

Some Australian denominations are in rapid decline while others are growing. According to our calculations based on various surveys, between 1996 and 2006, the numbers attending on a typical Sunday in Australia declined in the following denominations:

  • -36% Presbyterians,
  • -31% Uniting Church,
  • -25% Lutheran,
  • -19% Catholic,
  • -12% Anglican, and
  • -1% Seventh-day Adventist.

The numbers attending the following denominations grew:

  • +88% Oriental Christian denominations,
  • +27% Pentecostal denominations,
  • +25% Brethren,
  • +11% Baptist, and
  • +3% Salvation Army.

Within each denomination, some local churches grow while others decline.

Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, Lancaster University, have suggested a theory which explains the the various levels of growth and decline in their book, The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. They distinguish four types of churches:

  • churches of humanity – emphasising service to others (mostly mainstream churches);
  • churches of difference – emphasising the differences between God and humanity and maintaining God can be found in the Scriptures (mostly evangelical churches);
  • churches of experiential difference – emphasising the differences between God and humanity and maintaining God can be found through human experience (mostly charismatic churches); and
  • churches of experiential humanity – emphasising care for others and that each person finds God in their own way (mostly groups such as the Quakers).

They argue that the important difference between churches is the extent to which these churches best attend to the inner life of those who attend. They suggest that the churches of humanity encourage the repression of the inner life in the name of the service of others. On the other hand, churches of difference pay a lot of attention to the inner life, encouraging their members to find inner peace and wellbeing through God. While Evangelical churches teach that this comes through subjecting oneself to God as found in the Bible, charismatic churches teach that God can be found through inner personal experience.

Heelas and Woodhead argue that contemporary Western culture puts great stress on the inner life and finding personal fulfilment (which they call ‘subjective-life’). In this environment, the charismatic churches have grown most, Evangelical churches to some extent, but the mainstream churches have decline. Similar patterns are found throughout the Western world.

For a detailed analysis of the research of Heelas and Woodhead and an assessment of it in terms of the Australian situation, see Pointers, Vol. 21, no.4. (December 2011).

Philip Hughes

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