A recent article in the Washington Post offers continued evidence of the growth in membership experienced by theologically conservative Christian denominations, in addition to the continuing decline in membership experienced by those churches that have embraced theological liberalism (1).
This report indicates the continuance of a trend that has been noted by researchers and news reports for most of the past half century, going back most notably to the book by Methodist scholar Dean Kelley, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, published first in 1972 and again in 1982 (2). Subsequent reports in major news outlets during the 1980s and 1990s offered further proof of this trend (3).
The Washington Post article reports, among other things, that a Pew Research Center study in 2015 found that mainline, theologically liberal denominations were losing at least a million members each year (2). The article went on to report that such mainline church theologians as John Shelby Spong, an Episcopal cleric who has long advocated a liberal approach to the Bible, keep insisting that Christianity must “change or die” (5). But the article observes that “the liberal turn in mainline churches doesn’t appear to have solved their problem of decline” (6).
The principal surveys reported in the article were conducted over a period of five years in churches within the province of Ontario, Canada (7). But the article goes on to report that “outside our research, when growing churches have been identified by other studies—nationally and internationally—they have been almost exclusively conservative in doctrine” (8).
In the churches surveyed that are growing, the article reports, 93 percent of clergy and 83 percent of worshipers agreed with the statement that “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb” (9). In declining churches, by contrast, 67 percent of worshipers and 56 percent of clergy agreed with the above statement (10).
In churches that are growing, 100 percent of clergy and 90 percent of worshipers agreed with the statement that “God performs miracles in answer to prayers” (11). By contrast, in churches that are declining, 80 percent of worshipers and a mere 44 percent of clergy agreed with the above statement (12).
In the same survey, in churches that are growing, all of the clergy agreed that Jesus’ statement to “make disciples of all nations” should be taken literally (13), while in churches that are declining, half of the clergy polled held the opposite conviction, believing it is not desirable to convert non-Christians to Christianity (14). It isn’t difficult to understand how such opposite viewpoints are likely to produce opposite results in church growth.
An Old But Still-Valid Assessment
Dean Kelley, author of the aforementioned book Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, was invited in the fall of 1982 to address a church growth seminar at Andrews University. His remarks were published the following year in Ministry magazine, under the title, “How Adventism Can Stop Growing” (15). Though more than three decades old, Kelley’s warnings are still relevant in light of the recent Washington Post report. One might need reminding, reading Kelley’s words, that these comments came not from a lecture by some self-supporting Adventist itinerant, but rather, from a former executive secretary of the National Council of Churches:
If Adventists want to stop growing and begin declining like everybody else, all they have to do is to emphasize that abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine isn’t really essential to salvation. Decide that vegetarianism isn’t actually all that important . . . and that tithing, like the requirements already mentioned, can be a form of righteousness by works. And (I am almost unable to mention this) introduce the idea that one can worship as well on Sunday as on Saturday . . . that all these quaint and peculiar truths are really just trimming on the cake, that all one needs is love or faith.
If rightly understood, it may be true that love or faith is all one needs. But the trouble with these unstructured simplifications is that they’re too easy. There is almost nothing you cannot justify doing, if you hold yourself only to the criterion of love as you interpret it. It’s too easy. Rather than being guilt-ridden, most of us are prone to be innocence-ridden, that is, to find justification and excuses for doing what we want to do anyway. And if we can justify it in the name of love, all the better. . . . So there’s the answer to the question: How can the Seventh-day Adventist Church stop growing? Be like the Methodists (16).
Remember, this is a Methodist talking. And he isn’t finished. Listen to his thoughts as to how one can determine the seriousness of a religious community:
First, those who are serious about their faith do not confuse it with other beliefs, loyalties, or practices, or mingle them together indiscriminately, or pretend they are alike, of equal merit, or mutually compatible, if they are not.
Second, those who are serious about their faith make high demands of those admitted to the organization that bears the faith. They do not include or allow to continue within it those who are not fully committed to it. For decades there hasn’t been anything you could do that would get you drummed out of the Methodist Church. But John Wesley, in his journal, describes how he came to one of his little societies in Bristol, and found there among the eighteen members a number of triflers and dissemblers. He said, “I made short work of them.” After he left, there were seven members of the society. And it was much stronger!
Third, those who are serious about their faith do not consent to, encourage, or indulge any violations of its standards of belief or behavior by its professed adherents.
Fourth, those who are serious about their faith do not keep silent about it, apologize for it, or let it be treated as though it made no difference or should make no difference in their behavior or relationships with others. . . .
True, effective religious faith requires that you do something different, that you be something different, than you would otherwise do or be if you didn’t have it. It must make some significant difference in your life, something that will cost you a lot, because that’s what makes religion work. If it doesn’t cost, it can’t be worth much (17).
The Washington Post article, as it closes, makes the following observation:
Spong and other liberals are right to claim that Christianity must change or die. They just get the direction of the change wrong (18).
1. David Haskell, “Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving,” Washington Post, Jan. 4, 2017
2. Dean M. Kelley, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (New York: Harper & Row, 1972, 1982).
3. John Dart, "Mainline Church Strength Shrinks," Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1985, Part 1-A, pp. 1-8; Kenneth L. Woodward, "From Mainline to Sideline," Newsweek, Dec. 22, 1986, pp. 54-56; Richard N. Ostling, “The Church Search,” Time, April 5, 1993, pp. 46-47; Woodward, "Dead End for the Mainline?" Newsweek, Aug. 9, 1993, pp. 46-48.
4. Haskell, “Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving,” Washington Post, Jan. 4, 2017
15. Kelley, “How Adventism Can Stop Growing,” Ministry, February 1983, pp. 4-7.
16. Ibid, p. 7.
18. Haskell, “Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving,” Washington Post, Jan. 4, 2017