Conservative churches grow. Liberal churches fail. That’s been conventional wisdom for thirty years. In the 1980’s, as the religious right was beginning to flex its political muscle, people said this kind of thing all the time. This is why the mainline Protestant churches were declining, and Southern Baptist churches and “nondenominational” churches were growing.
Only it turns out that neither their theology nor their politics had much to do with it. According to exhaustive research by Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton sociologist, it was mostly due to marriage and birth rates. The best predictor of whether someone is in church or not is if they are married and have kids, and the engine of church institutional life for the last century has been married families. As much as churches of all varieties liked to think that they were bringing the lost to Christ, the fact is that most of their numbers came from simply breeding new Christians. The mainline Protestants, who tended to be slightly higher on the economic ladder, expected their kids to go to college and delay marriage until they had a sufficiently high-paying middle-class job. Their pastors, likewise, were supposed to be well-educated (and thus slightly older) than their “evangelical” counterparts. This meant fewer generations in a given church, and therefore fewer people. Of course, once the non-denominational evangelical churches eventually caught up with the economic prosperity of the mainliners in the 1990’s, they started seeing the same downward trend. (In the second decade of the 2000’s, there’s another disturbing trend: marriage is increasingly the privilege of a shrinking middle class. A majority of households below median income are now unmarried. What will that mean for the church of the future?)
I do wish it were otherwise. I wish that most of our growth was from changed lives, new believers, people who were committing their lives to following Jesus. That’s what “evangelism” originally meant, before the related word “Evangelical” took on such conservative political connotations. I consider myself evangelical: I believe all people—sinners, saints, and skeptics—need Jesus. They do not need a doctrine about Jesus. They do not need a particular prayer or a set of words. They need the person, Jesus, even if they aren’t to the point of “accepting” him. As a fellow church-planter says, the gospel isn’t about us accepting Jesus into our hearts anyway. It’s about Jesus accepting us.
Unfortunately, the discredited idea that conservative churches grow and liberal churches decline has not yet died. It was trotted out again by Bishop Lawrence, an Episcopalian who is distressed about that denomination’s decision to bless same-sex unions and ordain transgender people. “Sexual and gender anarchy,” he claims, will lead the denomination into decline.
There are two things (besides the prejudice) that bother me about this kind of argument.
The first is that there is little evidence that the political or theological alignment of a denomination actually affects church participation. On the other hand, there is plenty of data that point to socioeconomic factors (class, marriage, kids) influencing church involvement
Church people are notoriously bad about making fact-free assertions. Lawrence claims it’s their liberal ideas that hurt mainline churches, but I could use his same set of facts to claim that it’s the weather: Churches in the Southeast are doing better than churches in other parts of the United States. Clearly, it’s hot, humid weather that makes people more religious! So all we need to do is get more people to move to the Southeast! Or make the entire planet hotter!
At our General Conference back in April, one delegate had the audacity to stand and proclaim the same conventional wisdom as Bishop Lawrence. He said that we Methodists needed to learn from successful churches like WillowCreek, megachurches that were more conservative. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the 10,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, sat maybe two tables away. I wish I could have heard his thoughts at that moment.
Clearly, churches across the theo-political spectrum are able to do well. Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco is radically inclusive and very liberal, yet people line up around the block to get in. At the same time, there are plenty of dying conservative churches all over the country. Quality ministry does not depend on the orientation of one’s theology or politics. People who use the tired rhetoric that liberal churches are dying while conservative ones are thriving are simply spouting their own prejudices wrapped up in religious language.
The second thing that bothers me about Lawrence’s argument is this: I believe that if more churches gave a rip about about marriage and childbirth patterns, about the disappearance of the middle class, about the economic factors that make people poor and why that makes marriage less likely for them, they might do better ministry AND address a demographic problem of decline. But my saying that probably makes me a liberal. So according to Lawrence, I’m the problem.
You know what? I’m fine with that. I’m fine with being a problem. I dearly hope that we manage to grow a big Birmingham church of a gazillion people who are also problems, who also believe that God shows no partiality. I believe we problem people need Jesus, too, and I hope that we finally bury once and for all the idea that God only works with people who don’t cause such problems.