What Is Happening to the Churches?

LATIN AMERICANS, from Mexico in the north to Chile in the south, share many aspects of a culture held in common. Older Latin Americans can remember the time when there was basically only one religion, Roman Catholicism. In the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadores made it so by force of arms. In Brazil the colonial power was Roman Catholic Portugal. For 400 years the Catholic Church supported the governments in power in return for economic support and recognition as the official religion.

In the 1960’s, however, some Catholic priests realized that backing the ruling elite was leading to a loss of popular support. They began campaigning in favor of the poor, especially by promoting what was known as liberation theology. The movement started in Latin America as a protest against the poverty in which so many Catholics found themselves living.

In spite of the efforts of the clergy in popular politics, millions have turned from the Catholic faith to try other churches. Religions that hold services complete with hand clapping and fervent hymn singing or the atmosphere of a rock concert have grown and multiplied. “The Evangelical movement in Latin America is divided up into innumerable separate Churches,” says Duncan Green, in his book Faces of Latin America. “Often these are the personal vehicle of a single pastor. When a congregation grows, it will often splinter into new Churches.”

Europe Turns Its Back on the Churches

For more than 1,600 years, most of Europe has been ruled by governments that claimed to be Christian. Is religion in Europe prospering now as we advance into the 21st century? In 2002 sociologist Steve Bruce, in his book God is Dead​—Secularization in the West, said of Britain: “In the nineteenth century almost all weddings were religious.” However, by 1971,  only 60 percent of English weddings were religious. In 2000 it was only 31 percent.

Commenting on this trend, the religion correspondent for London’s Daily Telegraph wrote: “All the main denominations, from the Church of England and the Roman Catholics to the Methodist and United Reformed Churches, are suffering from long-term decline.” He said concerning one report: “Britain’s Churches will be well on the way to extinction by 2040 with just two per cent of the population attending Sunday services.” Similar statements have been made about religion in the Netherlands.

“In recent decades, our country appears to have become decidedly more secularized,” noted a report by the Dutch Social and Cultural Planning Office. “It is expected that by 2020, 72% of the population will not have any religious affiliation at all.” A German news source says: “Increasing numbers of Germans are turning to witchcraft and the occult to provide the solace they once found in churches, jobs and family. . . . Churches across the land are forced to close for lack of congregations.”

Those who still go to church in Europe do not usually go there to find out what God requires of them. One report from Italy says: “Italians tailor their religion to fit their lifestyles.” One sociologist there says: “We take from the pope whatever suits us.” The same might be said of Catholics in Spain, where religiosity has been replaced with consumerism and the search for an economic paradise​—here and now.

These trends stand in stark contrast with the Christianity that Christ and his followers taught and practiced. Jesus did not offer “cafeteria” or “buffet” religion, where you pick and choose what you like and  reject what you don’t like. He stated: “If anyone wants to come after me, let him disown himself and pick up his torture stake day after day and follow me continually.” Jesus taught people that the Christian way of life was one of personal sacrifice and effort.​—Luke 9:23.

Marketing Religion in North America

Unlike the situation in Canada​—where, observers comment, people have a tendency to be skeptical about religion—​the trend in the United States is for people to take matters of faith seriously. According to some major opinion-research firms, fully 40 percent of people surveyed claim that they go to church every week, although head counts indicate the real figure to be nearer 20 percent. Over 60 percent say they believe the Bible to be God’s Word. However, their enthusiasm for a certain church can be short-lived. Many churchgoers in the United States switch religions easily. If a preacher loses his popularity or charisma, he can soon lose his congregation​—and often a substantial income as well!

Some churches study business methods to learn how better to “market” their religious services. Congregations pay thousands of dollars to hire church consulting firms. “It was a great investment,” said one satisfied pastor, according to a report on such firms. Megachurches, with congregation members numbering into the thousands, do so well financially that they draw the attention of business publications, such as The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. These report that megachurches typically offer “‘one-stop shopping’ for body and soul.” Church complexes may include restaurants, cafés, beauty salons, saunas, and sports facilities. Attractions include theater, visiting celebrities, and contemporary music. But what do the preachers teach?

Not surprisingly, ‘the gospel of prosperity’ is a popular theme. Believers are told that they will be rich and healthy if they contribute generously to their church. As for morals, God is often presented as tolerant. A sociologist says: “American churches are therapeutic, not judgmental.” Popular religions usually focus on self-help tips for success in life. Increasingly, people feel comfortable in nondenominational churches, where doctrines, which are considered to be divisive, are hardly mentioned. However, politics are introduced, often clearly and specifically. Recent examples have been a cause of embarrassment for some clergy.

Is there a religious revival in North America? In 2005, Newsweek magazine reported on the popularity of “hollering, swooning, foot-stomping services,” as well as other religious practices, but pointed out: “Whatever is going on here, it’s not an explosion of people going to church.” The fastest-growing category  in surveys that ask people to give their religious affiliation is “None.” Certain congregations are growing only because others are in decline. People are said to be abandoning “in droves” traditional religions with their ceremonies, organ music, and robed clergy.

In our brief discussion, we have seen churches fragmenting in Latin America, losing their congregations in Europe, and retaining support by offering entertainment and excitement in the United States. Of course, there are many exceptions to these general trends, but the overall picture is one of churches struggling to retain popularity. Does this mean that Christianity is on the decline?

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The director of the National Vocation Service of the French Catholic Church was quoted as saying: “We’re seeing the super-marketing of religion. People consume, and when they don’t find an institution they agree with, then they go somewhere else.” In a study of European religion, Professor Grace Davie of Britain’s Exeter University said: “Individuals simply ‘pick and mix’ from the diversity on offer. Religion, like so many other things, has entered the world of options, lifestyles and preferences.”

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Graffiti on a church entrance, Naples, Italy

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©Doug Scott/​age fotostock

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In Mexico many have turned from the Catholic faith