The Lingering Death of the American Church, by Robert Conner

In recent years a number of American states have passed legislation to open Lookback windows that extend the statute of limitations in cases of sexual assault. Vermont passed such a law in 2019, followed by Nevada and Louisiana in 2021, Colorado and Arkansas in 2022, and California, New York, and Maine in 2023. Lookback windows allow previously silent victims of sexual abuse to file civil claims that often result in substantial financial penalties for organizations that harbored sexual predators.

Faced with hundreds of claims for clergy sex abuse, in 2023 the Archdiocese of San Francisco and the Dioceses of Oakland and Santa Rosa, California, filed for Chapter 11 protection. According to reports, the Diocese of San Diego also plans to file for bankruptcy protection. Extending the statute of limitations for sexual assault, which Catholic leaders have vigorously opposed, has resulted in a bankruptcy stampede across the U.S.; since 2019, 6 of the 8 New York dioceses have filed for Chapter 11 protection.[1] Despite paying north of $3 billion to settle sexual abuse claims and enduring tidal waves of bad press, the culture of obstruction within the Catholic Church doesn’t appear to have materially changed. Mary Pat Fox, president of Voice of the Faithful, a group working to promote “transparency and accountability” in the Church, recently observed, Just when we think we might be making strides in recovering from the clergy abuse crisis, we are reminded that the Church has not yet moved off the dime where clerical culture trumps the protection of our children and vulnerable adults.”[2]
Although the Catholic Church has earned its well-deserved reputation as an international viper’s nest of serial pedophile predators protected by their bosses, Protestant denominations are running a strong second place. Rarely a week passes without reports of arrests, indictments, and prison sentences for child pornography, solicitation of minors, and sexual assault by preachers, youth ministers, and teachers in Christian schools. Indeed, the frequency of such reports risks reducing them to a commonplace of public life, a form of national background noise. 
An extensive survey of sexual offenders in Protestant churches points out that there are 314,000 Protestant churches in the U.S. with 60 million members versus 17,000 Catholic parishes with 51 million members. Lacking the national hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church, “instances of sexual abuse within Protestant Christianity might appear isolated when they could be part of a larger overall pattern of offender and offending behaviors.” The author notes that “35 Southern Baptist ministers were hired at churches, despite being accused of sexual misconduct or abuse, demonstrating a pattern of institutional issues in responding to alleged sexual abuse.”[3] Given that there are 18 times as many Protestant churches as there are Catholic parishes, it would seem statistically likely, mutatis mutandis, that sexual abuse of children is more common in Protestant churches.
We do have to wonder why all this is happening—indeed, has been happening for a long time. Is it unrealistic to expect that those who become Christian clergy know Jesus in their hearts more perfectly than the rank-and-file of the congregations? But this Jesus-in-their-hearts fails to have the desired impact. The apostle Paul stated confidently that “…those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). But Christianity doesn’t seem to work this way, does it? Is this just one of many goofs in the New Testament? We also have to wonder how the churches manage to survive, with the many ongoing scandals. 
Speaking of which…
Equally stunning, although nearly unreported in the national media, are the recent trends in Christian academia, epitomized by the fates of the top three evangelical seminaries in the U.S., Fuller, Trinity Evangelical, and Gordon-Conwell. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary saw enrollment decline from 1230 students in 2012 to 633 in 2021. According to news reports, the seminary plans to downsize and sell off a portion of its campus in order to continue operating. Fuller Theological Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School have been forced to consolidate their operations and cut faculty. “Since the 21st Century began, Gordon-Conwell's FTE [full time equivalent] total is down 34%, Fuller's by 48% and Trinity's by 44%.”[4]
Seminaries have merged with other institutions in order to survive; McCormick Theological Seminary and the Lutheran School of Theology merged with the University of Chicago due to falling enrollment. After 66 years of operation, the Claremont School of Theology closed shop and moved to the campus of Westwood United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. Naturally, school officials have tried to put a positive spin on empty classrooms and vacant properties, but the handwriting is on the wall even if it’s gone from the blackboards — the era of the sprawling divinity school campus is over; both the money and the enrollment are drying up.
Other schools, such as Andover Newton Theological School, affiliated with the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ, have closed completely. The roll call of the fallen now includes schools across the denominational spectrum: Iowa Wesleyan University, Cardinal Stritch University, Finlandia University, Holy Names University, Alliance University, Chatfield College, Alderson Broaddus University, Oregon’s Concordia College, Marymount California University, St. Louis Christian College, Ohio Valley University, and Holy Family College in Wisconsin. Other religious schools are planning to merge to save themselves, and failing that, to close.
Even prior to the pandemic, more churches closed annually than opened. The pandemic clearly accelerated that process, but the root cause is simple: “The biggest reason for church closings is a decline in church membership. A March poll from Gallup found that fewer than half (47%) of Americans say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from more than 70% in 2000.”[5] By current estimates, some 2.7 million people leave church each year in the U.S. and the problem for the American churches is compounded by another factor: “Of course the centre of gravity for global Christianity is shifting, with Asia, Latin America and Africa now the places where church growth is taking place.”[6]

The New Christendom is the global South, the area of the world widely considered to be the most vulnerable to the ravages of global warming, violent political movements, social instability, and the eruption of new epidemic disease, in the countries millions are desperately attempting to escape. Whatever the future holds for Christianity globally, its future in North America appears increasingly bleak.
For a broader discussion of these trends, see my book, The Death of Christian Belief.
Robert Conner is also the author of The Jesus Cult: 2000 Years of the Last Days; Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story; The Secret Gospel of Markand Magic in Christianity: From Jesus to the Gnostics.

[1] Jonah McKeown, Catholic News Agency, July 24, 2023.
[2] Voice of the Faithful Statement, March 30, 2023.
[3] Andrew S. Denny, “Child Sex Abusers in Protestant Christian Churches: An Offender Typology,” Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice & Criminology, 12/1, January 2, 2023.
[4] Richard Ostling, Get Religion, May 26, 2022.
[5] Yonat Shimron,, May 26, 2021.
[6] Bill Muehlenberg, Culture Watch, May 18, 2022.