Impugning Stark's case are other surveys that have indicated an increase in secularization in America. A 2008 Pew survey with "more than 35,000" respondents found that 16.1% of Americans are unaffiliated with any religion--with "the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today...more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children" (see: http://religions.pewforum.org/reports). The 2008 ARIS survey (54,461 respondents!) found that 15% of Americans today claim "no religion"--almost double the number in 1990 (see: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/27/us/27atheist.html?_r=2&em; that 27% of Americans do not expect a religious funeral is perhaps the most telling finding of this survey). With 17,034 respondents, a Gallup poll found (1) that the percentage of Christians in America has fallen from 91% in 1948 to 77% in 2008, and (2) that the percentage of Americans with "no religion" has increased from 2% in 1948 to 12% in 2008 (see: http://www.gallup.com/poll/117409/Easter-Smaller-Percentage-Americans-Christian.aspx).
These surveys, which are more recent and have far larger samples than the Baylor Religion Survey, show secularization on the rise and Christianity on the decline in America--despite the fact that the country's religious marketplace remains free and diverse, with many options for consumers. They do not support the claim that secularization's growth has been exaggerated, nor the notion that mainline Protestant denominations are largely alone in their decline. In fact, even the two largest megachurches are now reporting decline (see: http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2008-09-08-megachurches-numbers_N.htm). An Oklahoman's perception that a mainline Protestant church is "too liberal" or a Californian's perception that a mainline Protestant church is "too conservative" cannot logically be blamed for the general decline of Christianity in America. Secularization is likely to be a more significant cause of this decline, as its impact is not confined to one denomination or to one group of denominations; no church would be immune to the effects of the surrounding culture's secularization. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, long a professor at a mainline Protestant seminary, writes, "The long-term threat to the viability of faith is not right-wing religious, ominous and destructive as that is, but secularism...[which] is so pervasive and relentless among us" (Cadences of Home, p. 138).
Of course, to agree with this conclusion, one would have to acknowledge that church decline is not limited to mainline Protestant denominations, but is far more widespread. Stark makes no such acknowledgement. In What Americans Really Believe, he contrasts seven declining denominations (which he labels "Liberal Protestants") and eight growing denominations (which he labels "Conservative Protestants") (p. 22). The implication is that the declining denominations (Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church [USA], Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Unitarian-Universalists) are losing numbers because they are liberal, while the growing denominations (Southern Baptist Convention, Church of the Nazarene, Seventh-day Adventists, Foursquare Gospel Church, Jehovah's Witnesses, Assemblies of God, Church of God [Cleveland, Tennessee], and Church of God in Christ) are gaining numbers because they are conservative.
Stark's lists are questionable on at least three counts. First, Stark cherry picks. There are conservative, strict, and demanding denominations that have not experienced substantial recent growth--the Amish, the Brethren, the Christian Scientists, the Mennonites, the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the Quakers come to mind. Moreover, some of these groups appear to be more countercultural than the groups Stark does list.
Second, both lists include at least one group--the Unitarian-Universalists and the Jehovah's Witnesses, respectively--that is arguably not Protestant due to unorthodox beliefs. For example, Unitarian-Universalists and Jehovah's Witnesses reject the traditional doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. Given the fact that Presbyterians and Southern Baptists (not to mention others) share belief in these doctrines, it seems to me that these Protestants have more in common with one another than with either Unitarian-Universalists or Jehovah's Witnesses, and that they should therefore be grouped together. (On page 19 of What Americans Really Believe, Stark includes a table that shows 46% of Presbyterians attend worship weekly, a number that falls about halfway in-between the weekly worship attendance of "All Liberal Protestants" [36%] and the weekly worship attendance of "All Conservative Protestants" [54%]; perhaps the Presbyterian Church [USA] is moderate--and therefore prone to losing both conservatives who want a right-leaning church and liberals who want a left-leaning church.) Of course, if Stark were to change his groupings, his black and white picture of liberal, declining denominations, on the one hand, and of conservative, growing denominations, on the other hand, would become gray. For Stark's purposes, it simply would not do to have the growing Southern Baptist Convention included in a list of liberal denominations, or to have the declining Presbyterian Church (USA) included in a list of conservative denominations.
The Southern Baptist Convention is no longer growing, however, which leads to a third reason Stark's lists are questionable--his statistics are outdated. Current numbers show that only four of the twenty-five largest denominations in America are growing--and two of these groups are the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses (see: http://www.christianpost.com/article/20090225/largest-christian-groups-report-membership-decline/index.html). Two of the denominations on Stark's list of growing churches are still reporting numerical gains--Assemblies of God and Church of Christ (Cleveland, Tennessee).
Why are these denominations growing? Stark believes they grow because they are stricter, more demanding--and thus countercultural. While I am for a countercultural church, I am not convinced churches experiencing numerical growth can credit this growth to a contrast-society ecclesiology. Here Stark may be guilty of a second logical fallacy (in addition to cherry picking)--that of false cause. Correlation does not necessarily indicate causation, and it is not clear that Stark adequately explores possible causes for church decline and growth other than liberalism and conservatism. Among other things, the age of churches, the age of church members, birth rates, and geographical location are all possible factors in the growth and decline of both denominations and local churches.
Consider just the last of these factors--geographical location. Both of the aforementioned growing churches are found largely in the South. The largest number of Assemblies of God members and the largest number of Church of Christ (Cleveland, Tennessee) members live in the South--46% and 66%, respectively (see: http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/table-region-by-denomination.pdf). The South (along with the West) has been the fastest-growing region of the country for decades. Tennessee's population has almost doubled since 1960 (from 3.6 million to 6.2 million); Georgia's population has more than doubled since 1960 (from 3.9 million to 9.7 million). Over the same period, Pennsylvania's population has increased only modestly (from 11 million to 12 million). Members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) have long been concentrated most heavily in Pennsylvania, with over 10% residing there today (see: http://www.pcusa.org/research/compstats/cs2007/table03.pdf).
Moreover, Christendom seems to have lingered longer in the South than in the other regions of the country. I experienced a greater cultural expectation to be involved in a church while living in the South than I have experienced while living in the West. Brueggemann uses the biblical theme of exile as a "metaphor...for the situation of the church in the United States"; he recognizes that this "metaphor is more difficult in the South, where establishment Christianity may still be perceived as 'alive and well'" (Cadences of Home, p. 1). Perhaps denominations located largely in the South have been slower to experience decline in part because Christendom and its societal expectations are still breathing there.
to be continued