We can probably all agree that we live in a rapidly changing world. But just how our world is changing is a matter of debate, particularly when it comes to religious faith. There is a popular misconception that spirituality is in decline because of increased secularism, but research demonstrates the opposite to be true. In a secular world, the way people practise religion certainly changes but, in global terms, humankind is actually becoming more religious. Between 1970 and 2010 the percentage of the world’s population who professed to be atheists fell from 4.5% to 2%.
But what about Europe? Isn’t Europe a post-Christian continent? Nominal religious affiliation is certainly falling but convictional faith is alive and well – and being expressed in an increasing variety of ways.
Two recent pieces of research support this conclusion. The first is a report from the European Evangelical Alliance that charts the growth of active Evangelical Christians across the continent. According to the EEA, the numbers of such Christians increased from 15 million in 2005, to 20 million in 2015, and 23 million in 2017. While evangelical believers are still a small minority of the overall European population, they are growing at a dramatic rate.
Closer to home, a new report by Evangelical Alliance Ireland, entitled Growing and Vibrant, explores an oft-ignored segment of Irish Christianity. Of course, there are many thousands of Evangelical Christians in traditional denominations but the traditional narrative of ‘the four main churches’ means government census questions are framed in ways that fail to take account of the increasing number of Christian believers worshipping in congregations beyond the mainstream denominations. EAI has identified over 500 such churches.
A Quick Summary
Our survey has identified more than 500 non-mainstream churches across Ireland. Of those, 58 per cent have grown in size over the last five years while 88 per cent expect to see further growth over the next five years.
We have also found that 46 per cent of these non-mainstream church members are under 30 years of age while 75 per cent under 50. The majority meet an average of five times a week while all place a strong emphasis on working within their community.
Evangelical churches in Ireland are younger and more ethnically diverse than the mainsteam churches, with 56.8 per cent of evangelical churches less than 15 years old, while 56.4 per cent describe themselves as ethnically mixed with 18.8 per cent predominantly African. Just 21.4 per cent describe themselves as predominantly Irish. The average membershsip ranges between 41 and 60 people, with 75.2 per cent of churches having fewer than 100 members.
Most churches, 48.6 per cent, identify themselves as non-denominational or independent, followed by the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) at 23.85 per cent, the Baptist churches at 8.26 per cent, and Assemblies of God (renamed as Christian Churches Ireland) at between 8 and 7.34 per cent.
Of the 504 evangelical churches in our survey found in the Republic, the largest concentration is in Dublin city and county where there are 141, or 28 per cent of the total number of churches there.
Outside of the Dublin area, the next highest density of such churches is to be found in Co Cork with 45, or 8.9 per cent of the total, followed by Kildare (33), Galway (27) and Louth (24).
For the survey, 448 churches were contacted with valid responses from 118, giving a response rate of 26.3 per cent of those contacted or 23.41 per cent of total active churches.
The Growing & Vibrant survey looks beyond the raw numbers and reveals a multiplicity of growing congregations with a young age profile and a rich blend of ethnicities. 46% of members are under 30 years of age, and 75% are under 50 years old. In contrast to the popular notion that the Irish are ‘losing their religion’, 58% of the churches surveyed have seen growth in the last five years, with only 11% experiencing decline. This growth translates into hope for the future, with 88% of the churches expecting to experience growth in the coming five years.
These rates of growth, coupled with the age profile of such churches, naturally produce high levels of activity and community involvement. On average, the churches in the survey held five gatherings a week, with the majority of members being involved
One significant finding in the survey was that Christian churches beyond the mainstream denominations, even though they have many similar characteristics, use very different terminology to describe themselves. The most popular self-designations are Pentecostal, Evangelical, Born Again, Non-Denominational, Charismatic, Word of Faith, Baptist and Reformed! I’ve often said that trying to organise Evangelicals is a bit like herding cats – and now I have statistical evidence for that statement! On a more serious note, this helps explain why census figures consistently fail to count this segment of our community adequately.
The Growing & Vibrant survey suggests that the Irish are not as unique as we sometimes believe ourselves to be when it comes to religious faith. Our experience mirrors what has been happening worldwide for some time now, and more recently across Europe. Society at large is becoming more diverse and secular, with religious involvement no longer being taken for granted in popular culture or upheld by State institutions. That provides a fertile environment for different expressions of faith that combine personal commitment with a sense of community.
Nick Park, Executive Director of the Evangelical Alliance Ireland.