Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Strength of the Christian Church in the USA

It is often remarked by sociologists of religion that the Christian church is much stronger in the USA than in the UK. This is reflected in the figures where in many places in the UK the church has less than 10% of the community in attendance. Compare the USA where it can be up to 30%. Likewise the majority of the UK denominations are declining, most to extinction, whereas even the declining ones in the USA are not declining so fast, and there are many which are stable or growing.

On a recent visit to the USA I found additional evidence to support the claim that the USA church was stronger than the UK. These evidences showed the impact the church has on that society and is thus an indirect indicator of its strength. That strength will come from its numerical superiority, but it may also come from a more robust spirituality as well. I present here 6 pieces of evidence.

Evidence 1: There were well-kept churches everywhere.
I was in the Bible belt; Virginia and North Carolina. However, wherever I travelled, each community, however small, had numerous, large, well-kept churches from across the denominations. In the case of the Baptists there were many of those in each town! In some ways it reminded me of my native Wales, but these days many Welsh chapels are near derelict, or converted to other uses. Those that are still open have no glossy advertisement boards, like their US counterparts, as there were few people left in attendance. In the US the churches looked an integral and essential parts of their communities.

Evidence 2: Grace in public.
Staying in my first hotel the family next to me said grace at the breakfast table. Such open displays of faith are almost unknown in the UK, but as I found out, more common in the USA. The suggests a Christian faith with more confidence than the UK.

Evidence 3: TV adverts.
There was one advert in particular, on a local TV station. The firm built large pre-fabricated buildings quickly. The manager/owner was speaking in the advert: "If you need to extend your business, build a warehouse, or a new church facility, I am the man to see!" In the UK no-one would mention a new church in the advert because there would not be enough taking place for it to make commercial sense, especially locally. But in the US churches are often needed to build bigger buildings for growing congregations, and new churches start frequently. On another occasions there were TV adverts for a new church starting that Sunday, describing its worship and ethos.

Evidence 4: Sales talk.
In one place I was staying at a time-share and they tried to get me to one of their sales presentations. It was on the following day, a Sunday, but there were different timeslots throughout the day. The lady asked me what sort of person I was: "are you the sort who likes to laze around and have a late morning, was I a get up and get out early person, or a person that would spend the morning at worship". No-one would have asked the third type in the UK, there are not enough Christians to make it a common occurrence. And most of the UK Christians I know skip church when on holiday and away from their own! But in the USA even a hard sell timeshare has to take the church into account.

Evidence 5: Wal-Mart.
The local Wal-Mart was selling a range of "I love Jesus" baseball caps among their hats. I mentioned this to a lady in a nearby Christian bookshop and said that a UK supermarket would not sell things like this, as they would be afraid of offending people. The lady said, it does offend some people in the US as well. The difference is there are enough Christians that Wal-Mart can sell plenty, and their profit outweighs the problems cause by any offense that might be caused! They would not be sold in a UK supermarket, not because of the offense, but because they would not sell sufficient to make it worthwhile.

Evidence 6: Christian books in the supermarket.
In one local supermarket there was a selection of Christian books in the book section. I was particularly struck by one entitled "101 Bible characters you need to know." I am not sure I would find that in Tesco’s! All the supermarkets had Christian music and worship as labeled categories in their CD sections.

That is it. 6 pieces of evidence to suggest the church in the USA is stronger than that in the UK. This might just be a social strength due to numbers, but it may also be due to an underlying spiritual strength, as reflected in the life I witnessed in the churches I have attended in the US. This suggests the question: is the church in the UK small because it is weak, or is it weak because it is small? Talking with older people I am not sure these types of open display of Christianity would have existed in the UK for most of the 20th century. I therefore tentatively suggest that church decline in the UK is due to its inherent weakness, socially and spiritually.