Belief and Unbelief in America and Idaho Falls

This post is authored by Charles Barnes.

The front page story of the November 21, 2013 Post Register, Losing Faith, reported the growing number of atheists in America based on a 2012 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life report. The article told the story of one young man who had grown up a Mormon, gone on a two-year mission and attended BYU-Idaho, but then left his church. The rest of the article consisted of a few scattered statements about religion and atheism in eastern Idaho.

The complete 80-page report cited in the Post Register article is available for downloading or reading online at http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/#_ftn3. The religious trends in this report are based on annual surveys from 2007 to 2012 of an average of about 20,000 respondents per year (ranging from a low of 9,443 in 2007 to a high of 24,764 in 2010). This equates to less than one-hundredth of one percent of the American population. The survey results indicated:

1. As reported in the Post Register, the self-identified “unaffiliated” increased from 15.3% of the population in America in 2007 to 19.6% in 2012.

2. Atheists were a subcategory of the “unaffiliated” and increased from 1.6% in 2007 to 2.4% in 2012.

3. Self-identified “Christians” of all kinds decreased from 78% to 73% in this five year period.

4. Subcategories of “Christians” included Protestant, Catholic, Mormon and Orthodox. No change was seen in the numbers for Catholics (22-23%), Mormons (2%) and Orthodox (1%).

5. “Protestants” were broken down into subcategories of “White evangelical,” “White mainline,” “Black,” and “Other minority.” No change was seen in percentages for “Black” or “Other minority” in this five year period. Comparing 2012 and 2007, “White mainline” decreased from 18% to 15% and “White evangelical” from 21% to 19%. However if 2012 is compared to 2008 (or 2010), no change is seen in the “White evangelical” percentage.

A similar study of religious trends with a focus on unaffiliated was performed by researchers at Trinity College (http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/NONES_08.pdf). This study compared survey results over the period 1990-2008 and had a much larger sample size than the Pew Forum survey. The results of the Trinity College study showed that from 1990 to 2008, the percentage of “unaffiliated” increased from 11 to 16% of the population. This study also noted that during this same time period, “conservative, non-denominational” Christians grew by 51% (see http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/).

Both of these reports have a lot of demographic and other information about the “unaffliliated.” The Pew study reports that 68% of the unaffiliated say they believe in God, 33% say that religion has importance in their lives, 21% pray every day, and 5% attend worship services weekly. Also, 10% of this group says they are looking for a religion.

The Trinity College report provided a state-by-state breakdown of the 2008 survey results. Relative to the percentage of the population that identify themselves as unaffiliated, Idaho ranks as 8th highest in the nation, tied with Delaware. Surrounding states (except Utah) also rank high – Wyoming 3rd, Washington tied for 4th with Maine, and Nevada and Oregon are 6th and 7th highest, just above Idaho.

So how are we doing is southeastern Idaho? Based on data for Bonneville County from the Association of Religious Data Archives, collected by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB) and available online at http://www.thearda.com/rcms2010/r/c/16/rcms2010_16019_county_name_2010.asp:

1. The percentage of the population that is LDS increased from about 49% in 1980 to 58% in 1990 and has remained fairly constant since.

2. The unaffiliated percentage decreased from 33% to 22% from 1980 to 1990 and has increased from 1990 to 2010 to 27%.

3. The percentage of the population affiliated with Catholic, mainline and evangelical churches increased from 1980 to 2000 from 18% to 22%, and declined in 2010 to 16%.

Based on personal research of church attendance in Idaho Falls, the percentage of the population of our city not affiliated with any church is closer to 20-22% than the 27% indicated by ASARB data, and the percentage that attends Catholic, mainline Protestant or evangelical churches has remained fairly constant (19-20%) since 1970.

Comparing results of a separate 1991 survey of attendance of 24 Idaho Falls churches to attendance in 2011:

1. 3 of the 24 churches closed during this period

2. 10 of the churches show negative growth rates that vary between -0.2 and -5.8% per year

3. 7 have had net growth rates between 0.1 and 1.2% per year

4. The remaining 4 had net growth rates of 3.2-4.1% per year

Thirteen other churches were meeting in Idaho Falls in 1991 but were not included in the survey. By 2011, 7 of these had closed, 3 had negative growth rates over the period 1991-2011, and 3 positive growth rates. The average Idaho Falls population growth rate during this same period was 1.3% per year. Thus only 7 of the 39 churches in Idaho Falls in 1991 exceeded the growth rate of the population.

However, it should be mentioned that also during this period 1991-2011, 33 churches have started in Idaho Falls. Sixteen of these are still meeting and some have had very high growth rates. While many churches in Idaho Falls have been declining in membership and attendance, the combined total church attendance in Idaho Falls has fairly closely tracked population growth, primarily due to the new churches started in the 1990’s.

Most churches in Idaho Falls have experienced one or more periods of rapid growth over their history, followed by plateaus or declines. Net annual growth rates of 20-30% are not unusual during growth periods. Rarely have these rates been sustained for more than a few years. And, the net growth rate is a combination of the total growth rate and the loss rate. In one case, a church saw a total annual growth rate of 40-50% sustained over five years, new people who joined or began regularly attending the church. But over the same period, 15-20% of the members were leaving the church each year, resulting in a net gain of 20-30% per year.

There is much here to pray about. People are losing faith, even some who have been faithful members of our churches for many years. Pray that we, the church in Idaho Falls, faithfully shepherd all who the Lords brings into His body. Pray that the Lord leads us to the “unaffiliated” who are truly seeking, and gives us sensitivity when we interact with the much larger fraction of this group who are not. Pray for understanding into how the Lord is working in our community and for grace and power to communicate the message of Christ to all segments of our community. Pray that our witness is incarnational to each generation, changing not the message but the forms and expressions it takes in our changing society.

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