Adventures in Misdiagnosis

If you are a church leader, you already know that mainline Protestant churches have been declining in membership over the last several decades. Fear of the approaching “death tsunami” and the financial implications of the die-off of large numbers of baby boomers has been driving a lot of the discussion in the United Methodist Church about restructuring.

Everyone seems to have their own strong opinions about what needs to change, but I have heard precious little talk about the underlying causes. Pundits tend to focus on theological ideas or public-image issues related to sexuality and politics that turn off young people to church, but few of the causes they point to are actually backed up by data. I believe we spend a lot of energy beating ourselves up about the wrong things.

Gallup research on religious affiliation

Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton, determined that the best predictor of whether someone is in church or not is if they are married and have kids. Because the average age of marriage has been moving later and later (it is now around 28 years old), marriage patterns alone accounts for most of church “decline.” Add to this the fact that marriage rates themselves are declining, and that the average maternal age of a first birth keeps moving later, and you can see that we simply have fewer generations present in any given church.

Marriage trends from Pew Research

During the 1980’s, as mainline churches began declining and independent evangelical churches began growing, many people diagnosed the decline as a problem with mainline theology. “Look at the evangelical churches!” people said. “They must be growing because they have correct theology!” But the supposed growth of independent churches and the decline of mainline Protestant churches was nearly all attributable to demographics. People in mainline Protestant churches tended to be wealthier and better-educated than their independent counterparts, so they married later and had fewer children. It only takes a couple of decades for small changes in marriage and birth patterns to have a big impact. Members of independent churches married earlier and had more babies–a trend which now is reversing.

(John Wesley saw some of these same effects in his own groups, and he lamented that Methodists didn’t use their increasing economic power to do more good in the world).

A new marriage trend is that more people who are on the bottom of the socioeconomic scale are cohabiting and not marrying at all. Since employment is unstable and real wages are lower, families are less stable. Marriage is increasingly becoming a privilege of the upper-middle class, a trend reflected, not surprisingly, in church membership. My hypothesis is that both marriage and church membership are related to the decline of social mobility, the rise of economic inequality, and the shrinking of the middle class. Conservative as well as liberal church leaders need to consider how economic policies that have the potential to grow or shrink the middle class affect their churches.

Of course, as I point out this data, I also need to make three disclaimers:

1) All of this analysis ignores one important point: the Great Commission is not about breeding new Christians. It’s about making new disciples.

2) I do believe that the challenge for churches who want to reach a different group of people is to create a cultural shift from thinking about church as a place where you “settle” to being a community in which you “launch.” This may be one reason that church plants tend to have a greater proportion of young adults.

3) The early church was known for radically redefining “family.” People who were not married were even encouraged to remain single! While marriage, gay marriage, and reproduction are at the center of public debates, the early church was remarkably practical and progressive for its time. Their theology on such things seems to have been “Whatever works” (for the Kingdom of God).

I believe that as a denomination, we need to avoid making organizational decisions based solely on strong theological opinions (of which we all have plenty). Both theologically and politically liberal and conservative United Methodists need to examine the demographic data. When we think about discipleship and justice, we need to ask critical questions about the roles of socioeconomic class, marriage, and social expectations in our ministries. It will not do to use discredited comparisons, as one delegate did at our General Conference, arguing that United Methodists should emulate the theology of “successful” conservative mega-churches like WillowCreek.

(He said this while Adam Hamilton, pastor of the largest United Methodist church in America, sat not more than forty feet away. Both WillowCreek and Church of the Resurrection are very different from Glide Memorial, which is also successful in its own way.)

Of course, plenty of local churches are thriving in their diverse local contexts. Healthy churches analyze their own local culture and respond accordingly to how God is already moving in their midst. I think one of the ways we can move toward health as a denomination is to realize that patterns of growth and decline may have less to do with how compelling our theology is and more to do with things like money and how it affects people’s lives. Perhaps then we can think clearly about how our theology compels us to move and act in a new social and economic reality.

On a local level, while our mother church, Trinity, has done a great job reaching young adults who are marrying and settling down, part of the focus of the new daughter church is to reach people before they settle and to help them launch. Since we recognize that communities have life cycles, and that some of our young adult pioneers will one day also become family “settlers,” we plan to birth another daughter church at some point in our future. By building reproduction into our DNA, we hope to keep adapting to our changing world. We are focused not on the crisis du jour, but on the opportunities God provides us in this new situation.

1 thought on “Adventures in Misdiagnosis

  1. Often ignored by liberals and conservatives alike, C Kirk Hadaway had reached a very similar conclusion about the declines in the Episcopal Church in the US in particular about a decade ago. The correlations to demographics were way more reliable indicators than the correlations to theology– then, and now.

    I noted this research was widely ignored. It was. Conservatives claimed Hadaways’ findings were a prime example liberalism denying the deleterious effects of liberalizing theology on church membership and growth. Many liberals, meanwhile, rejected it for being too reductionistic, and perhaps some because it did not make enough of a case that it was conservative theology that was truly driving people away.

    What Hadaway found was people weren’t generally being driven away. They just weren’t there in the supply they had been there before. You can find this conclusion on pages 13-16 of his overall piece on Episcopal Church membership trends here:

    Click to access 2004GrowthReport(1).pdf

    United Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and others whose rolls expand primarily through birth rather than through conversion or immigration should take note– just as you have played it out for us here.

    It’s no wonder all of these have experienced more precipitous declines since 2000. This is right when the declines in birth rates for the primary “target markets” of these denominations (predominantly Caucasian, middle class and up), declines that had been increasing for the past 30 years, hit a tipping point.

    As Hadaway and others have concluded about The Episcopal Church, and as even our own Towers Watson report concluded about the UMC, theology is not the driving factor in growth or decline in congregations in the US. There are growing and declining congregations at all points on the theological spectrum. What makes a difference is whether we are actively seeking to engage and share the gospel, as we know it, with the people around us, or rather, as too many of us in all social and theological locations still do, acting as if the demographics we used to have are still the demographics we actually do have today.

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