This graph, based on research by social scientist Rodney Stark, appears in the October issue of the AFA Journal:
As you can see, United Methodists are among those who ought to “read ’em and weep.” The Methodist Church had almost 59 members per 1,000 people in the U.S. in 1960. By the turn of the century, the United Methodist Church, despite a 1968 denominational merger, had fewer than 30 members per 1,000 people in the U.S. — a 49 percent decline.
The information above is included in Rodney Stark’s latest book, What Americans Really Believe: New Findings from the Baylor Surveys of Religion, published last month by Baylor University Press. Dr. Stark is the co-director of the university’s Institute for Studies of Religion.
At a Sept. 9 media briefing, Dr. Stark discussed discoveries from the latest Baylor research, including information about “megachurches” and about “mystical experiences.”
None of the things we all believe about the megachurch is true. We think of them as these great, huge, cold religious gatherings with a symphony orchestra and a paid choir and a lot of hoopla and a lot of good tidings but no bad tidings. A great collection of a big theater audience. Wrong.
Compared to small churches, the people who go to a church of 2,000 or more have a much higher percentage of their close personal friends in their church congregation than do the people who go to churches of a hundred and two hundred.
When you stop and think about it, how did they get to the megachurch? Their friends brought them there in the first place! Because how do megachurches grow? They grow because the people who belong to them work at making them grow. The individual outreach is enormous.
And it’s not true that it’s all happy talk. These people are as interested in evil and sin…as anybody in any of the churches.
Their levels of satisfaction are high, their volunteerism in community service is very high, and their outreach efforts are absolutely phenomenal. People in the megachurches talk to strangers about their church repeatedly. [emphasis added]
During the briefing, Dr. Stark responded to a question about which of the survey’s findings surprised him most.
When we did [religious] studies back in the 60s, the director of the center I was situated in…was plugged into all kinds of American religious intellectuals…. I designed the questionnaires and he sent them out to these people to kind of vet them.
And I had written a whole section on mystical experiences. [These intellectuals] hit the roof. Martin Marty went nuts, saying: “This is offensive. There’s not one person in a thousand who could say ‘Yes’ to these questions…. It’ll turn people off so much they won’t even finish [the survey].”… And we took [the questions] out….
Well, we didn’t take them out this time… [And the results] did astound me….
“I’ve heard the voice of God speaking to me.” Twenty percent said yes. “I felt called by God to do something.” Forty-four percent, yes. “I was protected from harm by a guardian angel.” Fifty-five percent said yes…. “I have received a miraculous physical healing.” Sixteen percent [said yes]….
I was groping the dark because nobody has ever asked this stuff…. Those [responses] absolutely knocked me down. I knew there was a lot more of [this kind of thing] out there than people at the liberal seminaries believe is out there, but I didn’t believe there was this much. [emphasis added]
Thinking more about this: 1) Dr. Stark noted that “People in the megachurches talk to strangers about their church repeatedly.” I suspect this is because they have found something at the megachurch — a vital worship experience, an array of positive relationships, clarity of biblical teaching — they want others to enjoy.
In contrast, many smaller and long-established churches have become staid, dysfunctional, and muddled in theology. As a result, members who may hang on because of family ties or responsibilities of office have no particular enthusiasm for inviting others.
2) The propensity of “intellectuals” to look down on (or simply be incognizant of) mystical encounters with God is nothing new. Consider this Journal entry by John Wesley, dated August 15, 1750:
I was fully convinced of what I had long suspected,… that the grand reason why the miraculous gifts were so soon withdrawn, was not only that faith and holiness were well nigh lost; but that dry, formal, orthodox men began even then [the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D.] to ridicule whatever gifts they had not themselves, and to decry them all as either madness or imposture.
It is worth noting that the three fastest-growing denominations shown in the chart above are quite open to “mystical experiences,” as indeed were many of the early Methodists.
(Put this against the backdrop of related research by Russell Spittler of Vanguard University: “When the total figures are combined for classical Pentecostals along with charismatics from Anglican, Orthodox, Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant sectors, the sum [now] exceeds the size of [non-charismatic] Protestantism as a whole.”)