Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Book Review: What Americans Really Believe (4/5)

I've reviewed one Rodney Stark book before on my blog - his amazing work on early Christianity called The Rise of Christianity. In this book, Stark continues his pattern of using great research to challenge the common misconceptions that people inside and outside the church have about the Christian faith. I really appreciated his insights in What Americans Really Believe because I hear all the wrong conclusions in the circles I run with all the time. Pastors tend to continue to spread summary statements like "We're losing this generation of young people" or "The church is shrinking in America" or "Mega-churches have low standards for their people" without any supporting data. This book is definitely not for everyone (hence the 4/5 rating) because it contains lots of data and lots of charts about American religious life. But for a pastor in the trenches, it was very helpful.

Here are my pick of the top ten points that Stark makes in this book...

(1) Weekly church attendance as percentage of American population has been consistent over the last 50 years. Now people may report that they attend weekly when they actually don't (called the Halo effect), but the data shows that the same percentage of Americans have reported they attend weekly over the last 50 years.

(2) Conservative, evangelical denominations have been growing rapidly over the last 50 years while more liberal denominations have been shrinking. While attendance has been consistent overall, it has not been consistent across denominations. Those who believe the Bible and teach the historical doctrines of the faith have been growing, while those who don't have been getting smaller.

(3) The percentage of Americans who belong to a local church (members) has increased from 17% in 1776 to 69% in 2005. Despite the common myth that America has gone from churched to unchurched over the course of our nation's history, the data shows the opposite. That separation of church from state (no government funding of churches) has helped churches become more competitive for members and thus increased the percentage of churched Americans.

(4) Across the board, mega-churches tend to be more conservative doctrinally and expect more of their members than small congregations. Despite the common belief that big is bad, larger churches seem to be growing because they are more committed to the gospel, not less, and because they ask more from their members.

(5) Most Americans believe in a real heaven and real hell, and that they will most likely be going to heaven. Americans are interesting in that they believe that God created hell, but that He won't be sending anyone there when they die.

(6) As Americans make more money, the percentage of what they give to their local church goes down. In other words, the poorest Americans give the highest percent of their income. People who make less than $20k a year give 6.2% on average, while those that make over $100k a year give 2.2% on average. I would think that this shows us that more wealth makes us more selfish and less generous.

(7) The percentage of Americans who don't believe in God has held steady at 4% from 1944 until 2007. Despite constant claims that more and more Americans are denying God's existance because of the increase of scientific knowledge, Stark's research shows that the same percentage of Americans are atheists today as were in 1944.

(8) Irreligious Americans are most likely unchurched but not atheists. Somewhat related to the last point, this insight helps those of us trying to reach people in our culture who are irreligious. The people who are irreligious are not necessarily hostile toward the idea of God, but more likely just turned off by the church.

(9) Level of education does not correlate with level of church involvement. This was one of my favorite findings in Stark's book because it puts to bed the myth that stupid, uneducated people are religious and highly educated people are irreligious. Instead, Stark's team found that the % of people involved in church varies little between those who did not complete high school and those with post-graduate education.

(10) People are 50% less likely to be divorced if they attend religious services at least twice a month. Despite all the research showing that Christians have the same divorce rate as non-Christians, Stark goes at the question not from the angle of what people believe, but what they actually do. Regular church-attenders are much less likely to get divorced.

Awesome stuff, huh? I'd love to chat about any of these if you want...

1 comment:

Gennae Heer said...

I love reading your book reviews. Lately, it's the only kind of reading I get done with the exception of my devotions. I ordered "For These Tough Times" for Gary. It hasn't arrived in the mail yet. I'm looking forward to reading it myself and passing it along.