This week, TheBlaze explored the potential reasons behind decreasing church attendance rates in recent years. While there’s certainly debate over this issue, one of the indicators that shows fewer people may be going to church are the statistics surrounding baptism — a rite that is revered among many Christian denominations.
While christenings have gotten some major press lately with baby Prince George’s blessing on Wednesday and Pope Francis’ offer to baptize an unmarried pregnant woman’s baby, as the Religion News Service reported, there have been “nose-diving rates of baptism in the United States.”
Experts said there are a variety of factors at play, among them a rise in secularism; a rise in interfaith marriages; fewer marriages being presided over by pastors; and profound “misunderstandings.” Others have cited declining birth rates as well.
On the surface, the observed decrease in church attendance would seem to mesh with the notion that baptism — an act that is inherently tied to churches — would also be on the decline. After all, if one isn’t going to church, he or she is far less likely to be baptized.
On the secularism front, consider the rise in the “nones” — a cohort of Americans who say they are not attached to any particular church. Last year, polls found that one in five Americans fit this description, meaning they were either atheists, agnostics or, most commonly, unaffiliated.
As TheBlaze highlighted earlier this week, the Pew Research Center found that the proportion of Americans who “seldom” or “never” attend church has modestly risen over the past 10 years.
Ten years ago, 25 percent Americans fell into this category, but now, that proportion is up to 29 percent. On the flip side, 37 percent say they attend church at least weekly, having dropped two percentage points since 2003.
While not all individuals who don’t attend church are “nones,” the decrease in attendance most certainly impacts rites like baptism.
As for the purported causes for the decrease in christenings, the rise in secularism very literally fuels the other potential contributing factors — the rise in interfaith marriages, fewer marriages being presided over by pastors and those “misunderstandings.”
As more Americans say they have no religious identity (the unaffiliated “nones”), it’s not surprising that these individuals would be willing to enter into interfaith marriages or exclude faith leaders from their ceremonies.
As for the latter element — “misunderstandings” — single mothers, for example, might assume that they aren’t welcome to bring babies for baptism due to out of wedlock births. And with single motherhood on the rise, this possible fear isn’t very surprising and could also be a contributing factor to the overall decrease.
So, just how much have Christian baptisms declined? Well, that depends on the denomination.
In June, the Associated Baptist Press reported that based on LifeWay Christian Resources’ examination, annual baptisms in Southern Baptist churches have declined by 100,000 over the past 12 years.
In 2012, the overall number of baptisms — 314,959 — was the lowest number in the past 64 years. Not surprisingly, membership has decreased as well over the past six years.
The Catholic church has faced similar problems. In a 2011 National Catholic Register article, it was noted that there was an increase in infant baptisms from 1997 until 2000, but in 2001 something odd happened; the number of baptisms fell by more than 20,000 — a 12.6 percent decrease.
In 2007, another decrease unfolded and there was a 28,000 decline in non-infant individuals joining the Catholic church. While this again somewhat flattened, a slight decrease was still reported through 2010.
An anecdotal example comes from Louisville, Ky., where Courier-Journal reporter Peter Smith recently explained that child baptisms conducted by the Archdiocese of Louisville are down “3,065 to 2,329 from 1998 to 2011.” Smith said the same phenomenon is unfolding nationally.
In England, where religious sentiment is certainly not as strong as it is in the U.S., there have been more notable declines in baptisms.
The BBC reported that while one in three babies were baptized into the Church of England in 1980, this now stands at just one in 10. Overall, baptisms declined for all individuals from 266,000 in 1980 to 140,000 in 2011. The Catholic church in England also experienced a major drop-off between 1964 and 1977 and has since had a gentler decline. Of late, the rate has stabilized, the BBC noted.
It’s important to note that infant baptism becomes a bit trickier to track, considering that decreasing birthrates will lead to fewer baptisms (U.S. birth rates are at record lows). But, as shown, it’s not only babies who are becoming less likely to be christened — at least in the Southern Baptist and Catholic traditions; adults, too, aren’t necessarily flocking to baptismal pools.
Overall, it’s difficult to have definitive numbers for all denominations, but among those religious cohorts that do study the issue, baptisms are certainly on the decline. This is yet another issue that the faithful will likely continue to monitor closely.
(H/T: Religion News Service)