Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
January 5th, 2017 by Joel Watts

Ignoring church growth

An impartial observer would note that the UMC is in steep decline — all of the mainline denominations are (unless you count the SBC, which is only in moderate decline). However, there is emerging a new mainline — of Catholic and Pentecostals, if not Anglicans. And there is a reason for that.

In two recent articles, we see something of a confirmation to the idea that “conservative” churches (i.e., churches that not only require something from their members but likewise encourage worship participation) are growing. The counter is that the “liberals” are dying. There are other marks to “conservative” and “liberal” beyond expectations. Doctrine, for instance. In dying denominations, historic Christian doctrine is often cast aside for 21st century Americanism. There are also other markers — such as a more inclusive outreach. For instance, the AG and the RCC are reporting high numbers of Hispanics and non-whites attending their congregations.

The UMC is the whitest of the mainlines. And in the UMC, the WJ is dying the fastest. Perhaps because of the PWN AC which is in the most racist part of the country. Is there a correlation between the death of the WJ and the racism of the pacific northwestern part of the country? There may be, given the need to cast Christianity not into the light of Afro-Semiticism of historic Christianity, but in the Euro-American centric halls of “Progressive Christianity.” I guess, perhaps, doctrine and inclusion go together.

Anyway, here are two articles to take a gander at:

Mainline Protestant churches are in trouble: A 2015 report by the Pew Research Center found that these congregations, once a mainstay of American religion, are now shrinking by about 1 million members annually. Fewer members not only means fewer souls saved, a frightening thought for some clergy members, but also less income for churches, further ensuring their decline.

And:

The U.S. Assemblies of God closed 2016 with the highest annual number of new churches in its history. The 406 new churches also brings the total number of U.S. churches to 13,023—exceeding the 13,000 mark for the first time.

Maybe it is time for the remaining (old) mainlines to decide what they want to do.

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

6 Responses to “Ignoring church growth”
  1. I would be interested to see how death rates match up, versus lost members (or new members joining). This data may not have any significance, but it should be easily available (that is, death rates of members should be readily available).

    Potential impacts – Africa, with probably much less “old” members, would have significantly less losses from deaths. Also, Africa, with a much larger pool of non-Christians, also have the potential for many more new members joining. I mean – even Mormons tout rapid growth in South America and Africa – even in spite of their rather dicey past history of racism (Black priesthood, Brigham Young’s obvious problems with the issue).

    The core issue I am trying to get at…
    The UMC I go to loses members primarily because they die – rather old group. Not because they are upset at doctrine. And old people don’t exactly generate a high birth rate. And new members are hard to get (steal) from other Christian denominations. And since I mentioned birth rates, clearly birth rates in the Deep South are certainly higher than Northern California yuppie country, were both spouses have a career, and don’t want 10 children.

    So, maybe the data isn’t significant, but “old” congregations in predominately Christian counties might have a disadvantage in growth, versus “young” congregations in predominately non-Christian countries, especially with high birth rates. If so – then perhaps, being conservative or liberal in doctrine has absolutely nothing to do with the problem of no growth in the U.S.. I wonder how growth of Mormon members in Utah compared with Mormon grow in Africa? If African grow far exceeds Utah growth, even with high birth rates in Utah, and obvious Black History problems in doctrine – then some other phenomenon is occurring.

    • And, as a subset of this discussion…
      I might be called a racist by some by saying this, but I have not ever seen a study of demographics in churches that address “Rice Christians”.

      When you have a majority population that is dirt poor, lacking free education, and minimal opportunities to advance yourself, it is very attractive to join an organization like a Western based church. Having had a pastor who was from Zimbabwe, where you have to pay to send your children to school, a church that offers help with tuition, is very appealing. I don’t think that situation is found in the U.S.. I wonder how the “Rice Christian” affect impacts various church growth outside the U.S.. Here again, I can’t help think that has a lot to do with Mormon % increases in Africa and South America, which ends up trumping (sorry, no pun intended), doctrine that is questionable (obviously original racist doctrine – which now has mellowed, but hard to deny).

  2. Question: re: “historic Christian doctrine is often cast aside” — does that not apply to evangelical megachurch?

    From my study of church history, conservative evangelical “doctrine” is not in alignment with *historic* doctrine, and is American-ized and infested with cultural bias.

    • That’s certainly your opinion. If they are casting out Christology, atonement, and so on… then away they go. But Evangelicals don’t. Rather, they do cast out other tangential matters.

  3. Tom McCann says

    I’m going to second naum’s comment.

    In addition though, I’d point out that church attendance is a measure of church popularity, not of righteousness. I’m not making any judgement on the theology of liberal vs. evangelical here. I’m simply saying that we need to be careful what we measure and how it impacts our view of the world.

    • which is why I want to avoid “liberal and conservative.” I believe there are “liberal” churches with high expectations that will likewise grow.

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