Facts on Growth... that Renewal Activists don't really want you to know
John Dorhauer printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jan 09, 2007 at 10:24:00 AM EST
If you have been paying attention, you will have noticed that for a few decades renewal activists have been making the claim that liberality per se is an impediment to growth, and concomitantly a de facto cause of decline, in the church in America.

A recent report released by Hartford Seminary's Institute for Religion Research  contradicts those propositions.

It claims to be the "largest national survey of congregations ever conducted in the United States." Its primary purpose is "the development of research-based resources for congregational development," with an on-going secondary purpose of "advancing the public's understanding of one of the most pervasive voluntary organizations in the United States - our religious congregations."

Readers can download the entire report at http://fact.hartsem.edu/CongGrowth.pdf - and I highly recommend that you do that. It is an enlightening and thorough look at what makes for, and what compromises, growth - and decline - in our churches.

Now, this is not a site dedicated to church growth. I don't cite references in the survey in order to give churches information about how to grow their congregations.

This is a site dedicated to enlightening the general public about sustained attacks from right-wing ideologues who misappropriate truth for the purpose of disabling moderate and progressive voices. My own role is to share my experiences of how that phenomenon manifests itself in the religious community - and in particular in the United Church of Christ. (Before the reader goes any further: please note there is a marked difference between a conservative - or right winger - and a conservative or right-wing ideologue; and a marked difference between a right-ring ideologue and a right-wing ideologue who misappropriates truth for the purpose of disabling moderate and progressive voices. It is certainly the latter that captures the attention of those who write on this site.)

Among the right-wing ideologues who misappropriate truth are those within the religious community who belong to any of the various Renewal movements associated with the Institute on Religion and Democracy's Association for Church Renewal. For a long time, they have been trying to convince their minions that to be liberal is to destroy the church and distort the teachings of scripture. An example would include this portion of an article by Chuck Colson - whose Prison Fellowship ministry was run, until recently, by the  current IRD president Jim Tonkowich (who is quoted in this segment):

"The truth is that the United Church of Christ--along with many liberal denominations--has suffered an alarming loss of members in recent years. Ironically, as they've become more "inclusive," more and more members have left. As Jim Tonkowich comments, "It is not surprising that the head of a denomination that has lost over 40 percent of its members should blame outside forces for its plight rather than examine its own mistakes. Liberal theology has failed for the UCC and for all mainline churches. IRD reports about that. But we did not cause it."

Let's be perfectly clear about what's at issue here. The debate is not a political one. Rather, it goes to the very heart of what the Church is. The real issue is simply, do we follow the Bible and the orthodox teachings of Christianity, or do we rewrite our beliefs to be culturally relevant?

The UCC's answer to that question is clear--and what's also clear is that it's turning Christians away. If they want to be taken seriously again, they could start by listening to their own new slogan--"God doesn't reject people. Neither do we"--and then start by not rejecting people who happen to be Bible-believing Christians."

We have long been arguing that the decline in recent decades in the Mainline church membership cannot be reduced to the argument made here, which is essentially that because it is more liberal than other church movements, it is destined to decline and failure as people figure out that to be liberal is to stand against the teachings of scripture.

And now, pieces of this new Hartford Seminary study confirm that.

The report deserves long and thorough analysis - and certainly more than I will be able to give it in this column. But two pieces in particular are relevant here.

The first is that which is found in "Figure 8" of their survey, entitled "Growth by Denomination and Theological Orientation." Respondents were asked to characterize the theological tendencies of their congregation, and the choices they were given were:  predominantly conservative, somewhat conservative, right in the middle, somewhat liberal, and predominantly liberal. The survey showed something quite amazing, really. I quote again the report:

"The disparity in growth between mainline and evangelical Protestant churches may seem to reinforce the widely held view that theological differences are the key to understanding why so many mainline churches are declining and why so many evangelical churches are growing. However, the situation is not so simple."

That is exactly what we have been saying for years, by the way, to the more than mild protestations of renewal activists who believe otherwise against what is now verifiable and substantial evidence to the contrary. The report continues:

"...there is very little relationship between growth and theological orientation. In fact, the proportion growing is highest on the two end points: predominantly conservative congregations and liberal congregations (growth rates of 38% and 39%, respectively). Growth is least likely among congregations that say they are "right in the middle." Only 27% of centrist congregations are growing at the highest level."

The second piece I want to cite from the report is from "Figure 13," entitled "Conflict and Declining Attendance." This should come as no surprise to anyone: the report shows that "Congregations that have experienced major conflict are quite likely to have declined in attendance." Not exactly rocket science there - but it is a significant piece of information to verify. The very next statement reads "congregations with no conflict during the previous two years are least likely to decline and most likely to grow."

It has been my consistent experience that over the past twenty years the congregations within the United Church of Christ that have most consistently endured virulent and unrelenting conflict have been those wherein renewalist activism has been identified - more often than not from the Biblical Witness Fellowship: a renewal group schooled well in the art of fomenting dissent and conflict over a variety of wedge issues, and in full compliance with and under the tutelage of the IRD.

It is also consistent with my experience that over that same period of time, those churches which have been embroiled in controversies introduced by Biblical Witness Activists - from which they could not extricate themselves - have suffered significant membership losses because of it.

Conflict destroys churches. Groups like the BWF should not be allowed to both stir up the kind of controversy that induces declining memberships, and then be afforded the luxury of arguing that the decline is a result of their target's theological perspective.

to argue that this study is a major piece in dismantling what has been a large piece of renewal activist's strategy, and shoots a large hole in their argument that to be liberal is both to be inherently wrong (by biblical standards), and susceptible to decline. This is a piece to which I will be giving more attention in the coming weeks.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Tue Jan 09, 2007 at 10:27:15 AM EST

Very interesting article. Chris Hedges in a Salon.com interview (by TTA's own Michelle Goldberg) mentioned how he thought the Christian Right's growth can be explained in part by the ability of the movement to meet members' psychological needs in the wake of the breakdown of community in much of the nation.

Those growing, theologically-conservative churches that offer hate-based rhetoric alongside their theological conservatism (not all do) probably are able to grow in part by offering services (like child care), faith-building and bonding activities (Bible studies, prayer circles, etc.), and entertainment (concerts, etc.). I would think that theologically-liberal churches could offer such things as well, but alongside hope-based rhetoric instead, and grow just as impressively.

By the way, here is the powerfully-worded summary by Hedges of that breakdown of community that he feels helps explain the Christian Rightwing's numerical growth:

"There are no community rituals, no community centers, often there are no sidewalks [in the suburbs and exurbs]. People live in empty soulless houses and drive big empty cars on freeways to Los Angeles and sit in vast offices and then come home again. You can't deform your society to that extent, and you can't shunt people aside and rip away any kind of safety net, any kind of program that gives them hope, and not expect political consequences."

by IseFire on Tue Jan 09, 2007 at 03:26:04 PM EST

When one adds - to child care, entertainment, and traditional religious activities - such attractions as stores (emphasis on Christian gear), schools, athletic facilities, counseling, libraries, and Starbucks, the mega churches have replaced the old community.

It's also important to note that, in addition to the absence of "old community" supports, the inhabitants of these regions are frequently young, mobile and without extended family. When they move, they can simply "unplug" from the last megachurch and plug into a new one; it will be reliably familiar and non-threatening - sort of like McDonald's. And, indeed, these are businesses (though labeled "non-profit").

While, theoretically, liberal churches could offer similar services, I wonder if they would would be motivated to do so. Would their orientation make them less interested in a business approach? Would people who attend these churches "buy" such a product or are they more independent and heterogeneous, do they have other resources, and, perhaps, do they avoid living in these enclaves. Figure 1 in the study indicates that location is very important: the greatest growth occurs in new suburbs (72%), precisely the kind of setting that lacks "old community" resources. Couldn't find it in the study but it would be interesting to look at the covariance of liberal vs. conservative orientation with type of community. My suspicion is that more liberal churches would tend to be clustered in cities and older suburbs.  

by Psyche on Tue Jan 09, 2007 at 06:16:45 PM EST

When you read through the manuals on mega-church building. Descriptions of marketing the church, of building target communities, of developing the kind of programs designed to respond to the needs of your target community, of identifying competition (described not as other churches in the market arena, but institutional icons like Starbucks and MacDonald's) leave one less than enthusiastic about the the more mundane ideals that led one into the ministry in the first place: matters like pastoral care, social justice, creative worship that matters, etc. Most Mainline seminaries are not preparing ministers to serve in this kind of church, but of serving in churches where more personal needs can be met by much more personal methods and means. And while mega-churches are structured around leadership that, like a good medical staff, is populated by specialists who do one thing well over and over again, most Mainline churches are led by genralists who do everything as well as they can, while never getting the time and training to do any one thing with the degree of specificity that makes them (ahem) marketable to the megachurch mentality.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Tue Jan 09, 2007 at 08:05:40 PM EST
Have heard about the existence of such manuals but never actually seen one. It certainly fits the business model. Suspect there's more similarity between economic and religious conservatives than may be apparent on the surface. Differences in training between mainline and conservative clergy is also an interesting point.

I like your analogy to medical specialties. The modern church as HMO (or maybe SMO?) - except there doesn't seem to be anything very spiritual about it.

by Psyche on Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 01:36:06 AM EST

a big marketing guru taught at the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary for many years. As Jonathan Hutson pointed out in his series about the Left Behind video game, none other than Rick Warren was one of his pupils and close associates. Drucker was a theorist of the megachurch, but he is best known for his best selling books on business.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 01:44:17 AM EST

to the image of an HMO - there is with the concept of a general practitioner - which is the appropriate analogy for the role that most ministers are trained for. They are equipped to respond to the various spirituals wounds from which those whom they are called to serve suffer, knowing that the more acute pains with which they have not the skills to deal require them to refer to another. But, it is often their ability to diagnose an otherwise untreated spiritual wound or disease that becomes an essential step in the healing process.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 09:20:38 AM EST
That is a role that mega-churches are ill-equipped to perform. It is hard to see 10,000 people and have the kind of relationship with them that you are able to know when such wounds are present.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 09:22:55 AM EST

I remember my father examining such manuals and books about church growth in the mid- and late-1980's (back when the household also received copies of Contemporary Christian Music magazine, I recall incidentally).

A few years before that point--that is, in the early 1980's--my father along with a large minority of fellow members of the board of elders broke away from a PCUSA church and started a very theologically conservative congregation. It was initially unaffiliated, but eventually affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA). The trigger seems to have been the local PCUSA church allowing women elders as part of a series of changes begun by a new minister...who a handful of years later was thrown out after having an affair with the church secretary. (My father probably felt a bit vindicated at that point.)

Now, in a different town, my father is employed at a conservative evangelical church affiliated with the Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA). It's grown incredibly over the last decade--to the point of completing a massive new worship site on the edge of town. Given the smallish size of the town (fewer than 20,000 residents), this church of several 100's of members is proportionally very, very large. Since my father was there and active throughout that growth, those manuals he read a decade before might have paid-off after all.

by IseFire on Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 09:29:47 AM EST

Interesting the implications of the geographic demographics and workforce demographics of mega-church attendee.

Got me thinking about the component of mega-church attendees in their 20's and 30's (and who are quite likely to be middle-income). They 1. aren't likely to have put down deep roots anywhere (especially since they're marrying and having children at later stages relative to when their parents did), 2. are likely to have been raised in the community-deprived environment of their Baby Boomer parents' suburbs, and 3. are highly mobile . . .

Thus, they go from an upbringing featuring disconnectedness from community to adulthood in which societal forces make reconnecting to community very difficult. All these 20- and 30-somethings like a great swarm of free-floating electrons in search of a nucleus. It's not surprising in the least that a great many of them will be pulled to churches that provide a strong social center. (In fact, a center for just about every kind of activity or need...but fiddled a bit and "redeemed" (name-branded?) by tacking the word "Christian" tacked onto it. An old college friend of mine who I saw this weekend here in NYC for the first time in years told me she's doing "Christian yoga" at a local, progressive PCUSA church in the Midwest. In my opinion, it was to her credit that she rhetorically asked aloud, "Why does it need to be Christian yoga anyway? What's wrong with just yoga?")

by IseFire on Wed Jan 10, 2007 at 09:14:35 AM EST

is fascinating. My brother in law actually served on staff at Community of Joy in Phoenix, a Lutheran mega-church of 10,000+. He had some interesting observations, which confirm much of what we have been discussing here. Most active members put less than $10 in the offering, and the vast majority he said gave $1 or two. He said the church was clear that its mission was to the 'unchurched', and that most came with no history in faith development or spiritual growth, and those who came and stayed never fully matured in that growth. Those that wanted to take their faith to a deeper level moved on to more established churches with much smaller memberships where they could get personal attention and have their own needs met, and their faith deepened. The staff knew this and were prevented from changing that dynamic, because the only way to sustain the large membership was to keep the message simple, brief, and shallow. It was very intentional. Now, that is that bad or wrong, as they are serving a consituency and responding to their need. But what that makes possible, and what political forces have long ago figured out, is that these are remarkably manipulable and maleable audiences who can be told - because they don't have the wherewithal to confront or challenge such assumptions - that their faith compels them to vote a particular way on a particular issue of for a particular candidate. It is the establishment and creation of these megachurches that has made the rise of Christian Nationalism possible and dangerous.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Thu Jan 11, 2007 at 09:24:00 AM EST
Your comment throws light on some nebulous thoughts and questions that have been floating around in the recesses of my mind. One thing that's disturbed me is that the "sheeple" are seen in some quarters as dumb or uneducated and yet available data (including from this Hartford study of megachurches) indicates that many are college-educated. The critical comment was about your brother-in-law's perception:

He said the church was clear that its mission was to the 'unchurched', and that most came with no history in faith development or spiritual growth, and those who came and stayed never fully matured in that growth. Those that wanted to take their faith to a deeper level moved on to more established churches with much smaller memberships where they could get personal attention and have their own needs met, and their faith deepened.

This would fit with a population that, while bright enough and even educated in some respects, has poorly formed (or no expectations) about religious experience. It would also fit with Isefire's apt analogy of "a great swarm of free-floating electrons in search of a nucleus". Qualms about an "unexamined faith" are likely to be rare if they are looking to the church primarily for a sense of community and concrete services - with a veneer of religion. A "feel good" religious experience that also makes them feel virtuous would fill the bill admirably - "fast food for the soul."

It's also interesting that:

The staff knew this and were prevented from changing that dynamic, because the only way to sustain the large membership was to keep the message simple, brief, and shallow. It was very intentional.

While this implies a cynical manipulation (and certainly may be in part due to marketing considerations), I would wonder how many of the megachurch pastors are equipped to address more complex religious issues with their congregants. One thing I've personally observed in working with chaplains (and residents obtaining pastoral counseling training) with a variety of religious beliefs and training is that the evangelical/fundamentalist professionals tend to be neither theologically sophisticated nor thoughtful about their own beliefs (and, indeed, their internal life generally). They seem to have "learned" religion by rote. It tends to make them quite dogmatic and judgmental of those with different beliefs since any differences are seen as challenges to their brittle belief system. (Of course, part of this may be due to their having spent more time in seminary on marketing techniques than theology.)

All of this seems rather dispiriting but it's probably an important discussion to have if we're about reaching at least some of these people. It also raises some new questions in my mind. What is the religious background of these consultants (and politicians) who are advising the Democrats? Are they evangelical true-believers who see politics as a way of spreading their beliefs while gaining power (as the religious right has done), are they more recent converts who aren't sensitive to religious diversity (would Obama fit here?), or are they cynical, non-religious operatives who simply see religion as a marketing tool to gain votes and have little understanding of, or concern about, "the varieties of religious experience" (like Karl Rove?). Perhaps a mix. Maybe we need to know more about them.

by Psyche on Thu Jan 11, 2007 at 08:16:09 PM EST

as much 15 years ago in the book "Rerouting the Protestant Mainstream" published, 1993. The variables are much more complex than ideology OR theology. Folks should read or re-read the book. It's that good. Too bad the UCC lost their head research guy to the Episcopal Church. I suspect that his work laid the foundation for GISS. At least Ron Buford must have been reading his stuff. Kirk is a sociologist. The IRD is staffed by lawyers and wanna-be intellectuals. What do you expect?  William

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