A great paper appeared in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion earlier in the year. Here's my review of it, which will be published in the Journal of Youth Ministry soon.
From Len Kageler, Ph.D, Nyack College
Marion Burkimsher (2014, June). Is Religious Attendance Bottoming Out? An Examination of Current Trends Across Europe. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 53(2):423-445.
It is easy to wonder if Christianity is becoming extinct in Europe today. We hear of empty churches, little belief in God, and other signs of decline. Burkmisher’s intent is “…to study, for each European country where comparable data are available, the current trajectory of religious attendance of postwar generations, and in particular to determine whether there are signs of a bottoming out…”
Fortunately new data is available from the European Social Survey (ESS) of 2012 and this updates significantly the information available. Another key source is the European Values Study (EVS), the most recent wave of which took place in 2009. Burkmisher discusses and evaluates the utility of these two sources, as well as other country-specific or regional studies.
Four different ways to conceptualize and quantify religious attendance/belief are also discussed. These include:
1)Cohort differentials, that is, for example comparing those born in the 1930’s compared with those in the decade following WW2.
2)Young People’s rates of attendance
3)Specific trends in cohorts born 1950-1981
4)Comparing attendance trends as children/youth compared to those same persons as adulthoods
US based youth ministry educators will find many aspects of European research on religion interesting. Some country-wide census efforts include questions on religious affiliation. European Union sponsored research includes questions about religious attendance and belief. For example, both the ESS and EVS consider one who attends religious service at least monthly as “regular.” Good data exists about youth/childhood religious attendance. This may seem odd to Americans until we remember that many European countries, while there is religious freedom, have officially supported state churches…such as the Dutch Reformed Church, or the Church of England, or the Church of Finland.
While Burkmisher shows there is a general decline in Christian religious participation and belief across Europe, the participation rates have stabilized or even begun to grow in some countries. Comparing cohorts by decades for people born in the 50’s, 60’s,70’s, and 80’s show that the countries showing decline in each successive cohort in Poland, Ireland, Austria, Spain, Germany, Belgium, and France. By contrast, some former countries of the communist block show an increase, such as Russia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Some countries have stabilized, such as Hungary, the UK, Finland, Norway, Czech Rep, Estonia, and Sweden.
I found research on youth attendance especially interesting. European research considers “young people” to be ages 18-29, and good stats are available every two years from 1988-2012. There were significant declines in Poland, Ireland, Austria, and Slovenia. For example in Poland the rate went from 90% in 1988 to 60% in 2012. The stats in Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Germany fluctuated too much to discern a directional trend. Romania and Russia showed strong growth. The rest of the countries of Europe showed 18-29 year old’s regular attendance as stable…from a high in Netherlands at around 20% and a low in Estonia of around 5%. One positive way to look at these numbers is that “stable” is definitely not “decline.”
Burkmisher, drawing together all four different measures, concludes that the Christian church continues to decline in Poland and Ireland. There seems to be recent rebounding in some Scandinavian countries. She wonders if the growth in Russia and other former soviet countries will continue. Most countries, she concludes, are essentially stable in religious participation, albeit at much lower rates than the US.
My only critique of her research is simply a wish. I wish Burkmisher could have attended the “Third Annual International Conference on Confirmation and Christian Youth Work” held in Helsinki, Finland in June 2014. For me, as a sociologist and youth ministry educator, to be there was incredibly wonderful. I would not be surprised in the coming years if Europeans and North Americans will be looking to Finland for exemplary models of youth and young adult positive engagement with the Christian faith.