Monday, January 29, 2024

Why Conservative Churches are Declining

Two news stories came to my attention this past week. One is the precipitous decline of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention. As an alumnus of the SBC’s flagship seminary, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I keep an eye on what is happening in this denomination. 

Baptisms (which are Southern Baptists’ statistic of choice to assess how they are doing) are less than half what they were at the turn of the century. This happened during the same time that theological conservatives grew in power and influence in the SBC. Likewise membership has been decreasing. In the most recent statistical year (2022) the SBC had the largest numerical drop in membership in a century, with nearly half a million members leaving. They have lost three million members since 2006. That is twice as many as the total membership in my denomination!  

The second religion story in the news is that the so-called “nones” are now the largest "religious” group in the US. “Nones” are those who check “none” when asked their religion. They are the religiously unaffiliated, comprised of atheists, agnostics and those who say their religion is "nothing in particular." In 2007, nones made up 16% of Americans. Now they are 28%. In comparison, Catholics are 23% and evangelical Protestants 24% of the US population. 

The trend is obvious. Conservative Christians are decreasing rapidly, and nonreligious people are increasing. Conservative churches are heading in the same direction as mainline churches, which have been declining for far longer. Progressive Christian groups are still declining, but not in such huge numbers. For example, the American Baptist Churches, which is a moderate Baptist group, has been pretty steady over the decades, declining slightly. Other mainline Protestants are likewise declining – some more than others.  

Yet the most liberal denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association is bucking the trend somewhat, being about the same as they were fifty years ago. I read a story in the local newspaper the other day about an American Baptist church in a nearby town that was growing. It is one of the most progressive churches in the area. It may be too much to say that liberal churches are growing, but at the moment they are not doing as badly as conservatives.  

Back in 1972 there was a famous book entitled, “Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion” by Dean M. Kelley. He made the case that people were looking for a clearly defined set of beliefs and values. Those churches that were most demanding of their members were growing. For years conservative churches sang that tune.  

Now the hymnal page has turned, and they are singing a different tune. Now conservative churches are declining as rapidly or more than progressive churches. Conservatives used to look down their noses at liberal churches for their decline, laying the blame on their theology and ethics. Now they are reluctant to apply the same standard to themselves.  

The decline in the influence of Christians in American society is why – in part – evangelicals are crowding onto the Christian Nationalism bandwagon. They are hoping that political power can turn things around where their evangelistic efforts have not been able to do so. Of course the politicizing of the gospel is having the opposite effect, alienating more and more people – especially the young. It does not look good for Christian religion in America – liberal or conservative. 

Yet as I look at the present situation, do not lament the trend. I see God at work in the hearts and minds of people who are leaving the church. People are looking more closely at what they believe ... and don’t believe. They are deconstructing the faith they were raised in (if they were raised in a religious tradition). Upon careful examination, many are deciding that their religious tradition is not true. 

So church decline has little to do with liberal or conservative. It has everything to do with people looking for meaning and purpose, beauty and truth, community and meaningful relationships in life. People are not finding those in churches, so they are looking elsewhere. They are looking to other religious traditions and humanistic philosophies. They are exploring other spiritual practices and beliefs.  

That is a good thing for the church in my opinion. The church is being purified. It is being winnowed of the chaff. John the Baptist proclaimed this message, and I see this divine action happening again today. The church is being forced to examine itself. Hopefully this will result in repentance.  The Christian church has become so attached to its organizational identity, cultural institutions, religious tradition, rituals and riches that it has lost the Pearl of Great Price. That is why people are leaving the church.  

Will the church survive? Almost certainly. God is not finished with it. Yet I foresee the church surviving in a form that we would not recognize today. It will be transformed in ways that we cannot imagine. If it is to survive, it will repent of its theological narrow-mindedness and realize what it has a lot in common with adherents of other religions. It will downplay dogma and recover the spiritual reality at the heart of all spiritual traditions. Some call this the perennial wisdom. If the church has a future, this is it.  

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