Since 1972, when Dean Kelley published Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, a good portion of the noticing of religious trends has been framed in Kelley’s terms. This led to concentration on what his title could take for granted: that Conservative Churches were growing. Kelley’s case and much else that fit his frame could have been supplied in an implied subtitle: Why Liberal Churches Are Declining. Readers who have a spare afternoon to play not Pokémon but Google can find hundreds, if not thousands, of entries on these subjects, whether explicitly defined by Kelley in 1972, or in our times by Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), or the Pew Research Center. We check the proposals and findings of these weekly, and often find them revealing.
What’s new? There is little point in retracing what contributed to the liberal churches’ problems. That is all very familiar. But recently we’ve been noticing how the issue has changed now that conservative churches are not growing, at least not consistently and markedly, or, as their own prophets point out vigorously: many of these today seem to be declining numerically, along with so much else among religious and community-serving agencies.
Previously we were instructed by Chuck Warnock’s review of veteran sociologist Mark Chaves’ American Religion: Contemporary Trends. Warnock chose to call his analysis “The Myth of Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.” Yale Divinity School (but avowedly “secular-minded”) communications staffer Tom Krattenmaker zeroed in on “Why a Stout Theological Creed Is Not Saving Evangelical Churches.” He noticed this already during last year’s “fractious summer,” and he’d have more documentation this calendar round.
Sightings’ this week links to some of the reasoning about these cited “non-growing” and “not being saved” articles. (By the way, neither they nor Jones nor others in their company suggest that those in or friendly to liberal-or-moderate churches should indulge in Schadenfreude because someone else is also ailing.) Krattenmaker points to the decline in numbers of the once-braggadocious but now self-examining conservative flagship, the Southern Baptist Convention, and chides some Conservative Church spokespersons who still play the blame-game against liberals.
Warnock spelled out several reasons for the setbacks to Conservative Churches’ growth. His sources and others join liberal critics of old who noticed that the attempt by the readers of 1972 and since to counsel all churches to turn doctrinally conservative in order to grow was often based on the assumption that conservative churches grew because they held to the truth. We might now once again need to observe that “success does not certify truth” in church life. “Success certifies success,” and prosperity depends on innumerable social, cultural, and organizational factors. Serious people in all kinds of churches and religious institutions often make clear that, in the terms of New Testament language, those who are “stewards” are to be measured not by whether they are successful but by whether they were faithful. Evangelicals and liberals both know that. There’s a lot of faithfulness evident in these “fractious” and hard times for churches and other religious groups, and that often gets overlooked by the success-measurers.
We’ll let Krattenmaker conclude: “As for evangelicals themselves, it’s time to stop touting the attraction and retention of their stout theology. If they need evidence for the beauty and truth of their doctrine, church membership numbers are no longer the place to look. They never were.”
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
Sightings is a publication of The University of Chicago Divinity School.