Why the United Methodist Church Should Ban Contraception (No, Not Really)

So, yeah, the headline to this post is deliberately provocative, but I think it’s important for church leaders to recognize how changing marriage and birth rates affect the churches they lead. (There are, of course, Christians who do support this philosophy).

This is a follow-up to my last post on this subject, Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid. I said that the economy has affected how people create and maintain families, and that because churches have strategically focused on stable families, declines in participation are probably more related to the economy rather than to theology or mission (which preachers prefer to talk about). I drew evidence for my argument from Robert Wuthnow’s book After the Baby Boomers, which far too few church leaders have read. I want to share a one particular excerpt from it on why changing marriage patterns and birthrates have affected church participation.

Growth and decline are partly affected by how many children people want and have. Growth and decline are also influenced (perhaps even more) by the timing of those decisions. If a hundred couples gave birth to an average of 2.6 children and averaged age 30 when they had these children, in 60 years there would be 338 offspring. But if those hundred couples gave birth to an average of 2.6 children and averaged age 20 when they had them, there would be 439 children in 60 years, or almost 30 percent more.

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I’ve added another hypothetical average age of childbirth (15 years) not because I think it’s a good idea, but to illustrate the math. – D.

In addition, waiting until age 30 means more discontinuity of the kind that often weakens religious ties with religious traditions (geographic mobility, travel, higher education). To the extent that religious organizations perpetuate themselves by encouraging families to have children, then, the most significant influence may not be the number of children, but when they have children. (Wuthnow, 143)

Again, I want to assert that I do not think that the Great Commission (making disciples of all peoples) is primarily about breeding new Christians, nor do I think churches should actually be advocating for earlier heterosexual marriages or contraception bans. But I do think that part of the religious right’s idolatry of the family comes from a recognition and prioritization of these social realities. Churches that have built Jesus-theme-parks for families know which side of their bread is buttered.

As a culture,  we have idolized a particular vision of family even as we have made that vision less attainable. We have made it economically tough for young people to marry and have babies, even as the religious right has ratcheted up their condemnation of sex outside of heterosexual marriage. If we make it hard for people to form and maintain families, we also shouldn’t be surprised when churches that depend on families begin to decline. Again, I don’t think this is the way things should be. I just think it’s a pretty accurate description of the way things are.

I’ll restate some of the important questions that I believe churches should ask: How can we be church to people who choose not to or can’t have children? To single parents? To gay and lesbian parents? To grandparents? How can we help people whose life goals do not include “settling down,” but building a life of active ministry?

Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid

“Young Adults, Authenticity, and the Future of the Church.” This was the title of our proposal for three years of study when we applied for an ICE grant. In recent days, an article by Rachel Held Evans has created a flurry of replies about the same topic. Here are some of them, compiled by my friend Rachel Gonia:

My favorite (somewhat curmudgeonly) response is from Anthony Bradley: United Methodists Wearing A Millennial Evangelical Face. He says that really, the United Methodist Church addresses all of Rachel’s examples of millennial dissatisfaction. I, too, want to stand on the rooftops, wave my hands and say, “Hey, all you disillusioned evangelicals and spiritually-minded skeptics! We’ve got what you’re looking for right over here!”

Except that I believe all of the discussion about theology and mission is largely irrelevant to Protestant decline. It’s important stuff, certainly, and worthy of discussion. I’m just skeptical that it has much to do with the growth or decline of the church. Our churches have been beating ourselves up about our theology and mission and so on for thirty-some-odd years, and while there may be some insightful critiques in all the hand-wringing, I believe the decline of participation in both evangelical and mainline churches has more to do with two things: money and birthrates.

I know, we’d rather blame our theological and denominational bugaboos. We’re not missional enough, or evangelical enough, or socially-conscious enough, or orthodox enough, or envelope-pushing enough, or slick enough, or simple enough, or radical enough. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, when evangelical inde-bapti-costal churches were growing and mainliners were shrinking, conservatives gleefully blamed weak liberal theology (and the wrath of God) for our decline. Now that it’s hitting the conservatives, too, we (slightly more) liberal mainliners can blame their bad theology. Or whatever theology and practices we dislike. Some people like the idea of shrinkage, because it demonstrates how countercultural the gospel is—only those of us authentically Christian enough will really get it. Okay, sure, I like being in the moral minority, too.

Robert Wuthnow is one of few researchers pointing to sociological causes, and his book After the Baby Boomers completely changed the way I think about these issues. To wrap your head around the various causes of decline in church membership, remember this fact: The best predictor of church attendance is if someone a) is married and b) has children. I’m not saying that this should be the case. I’m not saying that married people with kids are the only people in church or the only people who count. I’m just describing empirically-verifiable data.

Instead of theological or worship or marketing issues, I believe a more likely explanation for the decline in attendance at mainline Protestant churches over the last several decades is simply that people tend to marry later (if at all) and have fewer babies. Although our mission is to make disciples, most denominations have grown not by converting unbelievers, but by breeding more Christians. Since the best predictor of church attendance is “settling down” and investing in a local community like your parents did, slowing marriage and reproduction rates means fewer generations in a given church. As evangelical churches began catching up with mainline Protestants in education and income patterns (which delay marriage), their growth slowed and reversed as well. Sure, Christians still make converts and baptize new believers—just not faster than they are dying off.

The trend has only been accelerating. Because of economic pressure on the middle class, marriage itself is becoming a less-attainable goal (compare and contrast with this article about urbanization and the family from 1969). When people have to work two full-time jobs to raise a family, they don’t have time to go to a worship service on the weekend. Speaking of jobs, Wuthnow pointed out that it is less likely that anyone will be employed by the same employer in the same place for more than a few years. With all that job-and-place-changing, people don’t settle down anywhere, nor do their children get habituated to church attendance. At a recent church-planter training, Jim Griffith pointed out to us that since people can’t afford to take two-week vacations anymore, they wind up taking multiple weekend trips during the year, decreasing the time they have to participate in church activities. All of these lifestyle and economic influences make it less likely that people will commit to a church.

At the same time, the number of churches per thousand people has been declining since the 60’s as well. At one time, Methodists were proud of the fact that there were more Methodist churches than post offices in the United States. All those little country churches became a drag on growth as urbanization increased, yet we stopped planting new churches in cities. And guess where young people are more likely to be? The cities. Not marrying. Not breeding. And the longer they are not in church, the less likely they are to return.

It’s not all about young people. Since a greater number older people can’t afford to retire, the pool of available retirees who provide valuable volunteer labor to churches is declining. We like to talk about the graying of our congregations, but the fact is they are increasingly absent, too.

Here’s a little comparison that illustrates what I’m talking about. Overlay these two graphs. The first is union participation and wage growth for the middle class:

This graph starts with 1967, the last year that the UMC posted a gain in church membership. Since then, we’ve mirrored all other Protestant denominations:

Of course, I’m not claiming that you can just look at two possibly correlated graphs and infer a cause. But I do think that they illustrate what Wuthnow claims about socioeconomic factors leading to fewer young adults in churches. We designed churches to be anchors in the community and shaped them around heterosexual couples who were married, had children, a stable income, and predictable life patterns. The church in the United States shaped itself around the middle class, and grew as it grew. We do not live in that world anymore.

Sure, any given individual’s story may not describe those socioeconomic pressures. I have no doubt that an 22-year-old who has left a church disillusioned might blame bad theology, religious exclusivism, or intolerance of LGBTQ persons for her leaving rather than her parents later marriage, smaller family size, and job transfers in the 80’s and 90’s. And again, I’m not suggesting theology and mission are not important. In fact, I think they are extremely important. But I am always skeptical of self-reporting, and I tend to look for material (rather than intellectual or spiritual) etiologies for church problems. I know this approach is not popular among the religious set, but I have to ask myself which is more likely: a) that an entire generational cohort is suddenly asking the critical questions I’ve always wished they would ask, or b) that growing income inequality, rising poverty, and a shrinking middle class over the last thirty years has changed the way people approach their careers and their relationships, and those factors, in turn, affect how their families (and their children) relate to church?

There are some questions, though, that do connect the socioeconomic problems with the theological ones: Why is church a place where we settle down instead of launch? Why have we idolized family, race, and class values instead of questioning them? And why aren’t we raising more of a ruckus about the economic injustice that is (directly or indirectly) decimating our churches? Why aren’t more of us pointing out that our civic religion and social structure seems to be based more on the pagan worship of the power and wealth of the 1% than the liberating God of Moses and Jesus? Maybe it’s time that we were driven out into the wilderness to learn about the kind of society God envisions.

From Daniel Erlander’s “Manna & Mercy”

The inevitable question people ask me when I talk about this stuff is, “What do we do, then?” I wish I had a better answer, because I automatically mistrust any pastor or pundit whose answer is “Think more like me.” Including me. Especially me.

I do not have an answer, but I have chosen a particular response: Make disciples and plant churches. Plant churches for people in transition. Plant churches for people who want to launch instead of settle down. Plant churches for families. Plant them for homeless runaways. Plant them in bars. Plant them in parks. Plant them in closed or dying churches. Plant them among the young. Plant them in retirement communities. Plant them on the internet. Plant them for liberals. Plant them for conservatives. Plant them among the disillusioned and the non-religious and the too-religious and the rich and the poor. Plant them for freaks and geeks and people who like church and people who don’t. Plant them and call them churches or plant them and call them something else. Just plant them, like a sower randomly casting seeds that bounce off of car hoods and passersby and fall between cracks in the sidewalk and land in vacant lots and on railroad tracks.

That’s my plan, anyway. I’ll tell you if it works.

I’m the Problem

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.

Lessons from Last Sunday

One of the things I’ve been looking forward to is the time I’ve scheduled this summer to visit other churches and learn from them. I visited a major Birmingham mega-church this past Sunday, and although I did not get to hear the senior pastor preach, I did get to observe what happens in worship.

I’ll go ahead and confess I’m inclined to be annoyed at this large, dynamic, successful church. Part of my annoyance is healthy competitive spirit, but it is part envy as well. I have been in ministry in other cities and other churches dwarfed by a large neighboring church, stymied by attempts to do ministry because “______ Church is already doing that far better than we can.” Rather than being excited by the other church’s positive impact in a community, I’ve been resentful. Members would get siphoned away from our church to the larger one because of bigger youth and children’s programs, and I would mutter about “sheep-stealing.” (To be fair, I’ve also been in ministry in a large, dynamic church that has probably done the same to smaller neighbor churches as well).

So when the preacher began his sermon with a ten-minute sales job for the church, I was initially put off. Over and over again he said that he loved this church, that he loved the pastor and the pastor’s family, that he loved Birmingham and the impact the church was having on Birmingham. I began checking my clock. Was this guy ever going to get around to preaching? But then I began to reflect that if people are exposed to this kind of cheerleading on a regular basis, they probably begin believing it. They might even begin acting on it.

One of the most powerful tools leaders have to change behavior is called “attribution.” It means that you attribute to someone the qualities you want for them to have, and then they try to live up to your expectations.

In one famous psychology experiment, researchers established a target behavior for three classes of fifth graders. The first class was offered a pizza party if they would keep their classroom free of litter. The second class was offered no reward, but the principle would visit the room and say, “Wow, you kids keep your room so tidy. You must like to keep your room clean.” The last class was the control group. Guess which class did the best job at keeping their room tidy? Not the one with the reward incentive, but the one to whom the principle attributed tidiness.

It has become popular to ridicule the self-esteem movement in education of the last decade, but it is mostly because both its critics and advocates misunderstand incentives and behavior change. It is well-established that attribution is a powerful tool for changing behavior for both individuals and communities. This is why good-hearted, well-intentioned pastors who whine about people not participating in missions can’t actually guilt people into serving, while gung-ho pastors who incessantly praise their churches succeed. People live up or down to expectations.