The Dec. 17, 2016, issue of The Dallas Morning News carried a shocking headline: “Conservative Belief Spurs Church Growth.” The story recounts the astonishing discovery of David Millard Haskell, associate professor of religion, culture and digital media and journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. Apparently, there is a connection between what conservative churches believe and growth patterns that are largely absent from more liberal churches. This happens even though conservative pastors often violate their own convictions and cast the sheep of their congregations into the spiritual equivalent of slaughter houses. Furthermore, not all conservative churches demonstrate growth, and one can still find some liberal churches that have experienced a modicum of increase.
But wait! This is not news. In 1972, Dean M. Kelley wrote a monograph entitled Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, published by Harper and Row. Some of his definitions were too broad, but who would have anticipated such a book from a United Methodist clergyman who, at that time, was working for the National Council of Churches? Kelley wrote:
If now the leaders of that organization expect to summon those members into the struggle for social improvement, they are simply calling the wrong collection of people. The churches and synagogues are not social-action barracks where the troops of militant reform are kept in readiness to charge forth at the alarums and excursions of social change. Rather, they are the conservatories where the hurts of life are healed, where new spiritual strength is nourished, and where the virtues and verities of human experience are celebrated. To rally those within to launch an attack on the status quo is like trying to lead into hand-to-hand combat a collection of nurses, teachers, physicians, and gardeners, people who are capable, responsible, and responsive—at something else.
Then in 1992, Rutgers University Press, hardly noted for being a vehicle for fundamentalism, published the work of Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America 1776-1990. These two sociologists used different examples, but the conclusions are identical. Now Haskell has followed suit. So every 20 to 25 years, people who are not particularly sympathetic with the narrow conclusions of conservative churches keep arriving at the same conclusions. Perhaps the third time will be a charm, and a firm grasp of the obvious will finally be achieved.
How is it that something this obvious seems to be absent from the thinking of so many? Well, let’s see if I might be able to help. I am not adroit with technology. So, I have decided to establish a new social order based on the rejection of technology. I remember with delight when I had to have a quarter and find a phone booth to make a call. At home, we had a tail attached to our phone so you could not wander far, but since it was a party line, you could still listen to what all the neighbors were saying. In this society, I suggest that we reject cell phones and inveigh against them. How many followers, even among the elderly, do you think I will have?
Everyone knows that technology is here to stay, and we all enjoy the freedom afforded by use of our cell phones. There will be little success in my new social order, even though it is not without its redeeming features. To critique technology and urge people to live simpler lives is going to gather precious little following. In fact, one would enjoy greater success in a boxing match with an enraged grizzly than to have a social order that rejects technology. By the same token, criticism of the Bible and churches that faithfully proclaim its truth, while always popular in the academy, in the liberal press, and in a few self-congratulatory elitist circles, is anything but profound.
Here is the stern truth of the matter. Among folks who are interested in attending church, there is little appeal in hearing an erudite minister give a lecture on understanding the ways Plutarch’s approach to biography will somehow help us dance around the “mistakes” in the Gospel accounts of Jesus so as to uncover the real message, which some “scholar” then must translate into our limited context. Since Porphyry launched his attack on Daniel in the late third century, fashionable scholarship has attacked the Bible. Eighteen centuries later, conservative churches are growing worldwide! In spite of all the foibles of its clergy, specious arguments sometimes advanced in its defense, internal debates about such things as style of music and inconsistencies in the lives of Christians, people still want to know if God has anything to say about this life and existence that we share.
Greater Vision Quartet has a song from the point of view of a parishioner: “Preacher, if you want to be my friend, don’t tell me what I want to hear.” The parishioner goes on to ask that the preacher tell him what God says. No one anticipates perfection from even the leaders in the church, but they know well that, in terms of ultimate answers, the universities have failed, the psychiatrists have moved the patients over to recline on their own couches, and the politicians have created such a muddle that any hope there perished long ago. On the other hand, the majority of people who follow Christ and invoke the Bible as a guide for life are a happy people, forgiving offences rather readily, loving one another and even their enemies, accepting the providences of God, and, when necessary, suffering and even dying for their faith with confidence. They tend to be good citizens, they neither steal nor murder, and, in spite of many miscues, they usually maintain the best in family life.
Usually, Christians of a conservative stripe do not spend an inordinate amount of time fretting over the end of the age, the status of dictators in the world, or the possibility of nuclear annihilation. The Bible has taught them how to live, how to think, and how to trust God by faith. These Christians are appropriately concerned, but they believe with all their hearts that the final chapter in human existence has been penned by God.
And by the way, there is a reason why conservative seminaries are holding their own in a day when most of the rest are on a downward turn. Of the 10 largest seminaries in America, almost all of them have a conservative persuasion. As Finke and Stark note, “Because most Baptist seminaries in the North were independently organized and thereby free of denominational control, they easily became a haven for the expression and development of liberal theology.”
With the millions of abortions taking place, coupled with the failure in the local churches to call out the called and the prevailing tendency among millennials to see little need of instruction, these conservative seminaries are attuned closest to the local churches and remain strong. The close pastoral relationship between these seminaries and the local churches that support them with prayer and funding results in a steady stream of students who hold them close to the Bible. How many more sociologists will have to recount this history before the social establishment notes the phenomenon and begins to ask why this is the case?
Dean M. Kelley, Why Conservative Churches are Growing (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 151.
Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), 172.