For decades now, the United Church of Christ and other mainline denominations have been experiencing a slow and steady decline. It's all laid out in the annual National Council of Churches report. Everyone has their own theory as to why this has been happening, but I've maintained that the most ridiculous and unfounded theory has to do with theology.
Critics of the UCC and other mainline churches love to talk about how, if they just gave up their heathen liberal ways, they'd begin to see growth again. People are leaving in droves, and the assumption is that they're heading right to more conservative churches because they're just so wonderfully...conservative. If only we believed in Biblical inerrancy. If only we domesticated women. If only we adhered to the Five Fundamentals. If only we [insert stock conservative stance here].
A closer look at the situation, however, doesn't seem to support that theory. People with an anti-liberal axe to grind may not want to believe it, but a much bigger contributor to decline is lack of innovation.
Consider, for instance, an article cited by the Internet Monk on the decline of the Southern Baptist Convention. Yes, the declining conservative Southern Baptist Convention. A snippet:
Bill Leonard, a Baptist historian at Wake Forest University, believes that conservatives underestimated the power of demographics. Much of the mainline decline is due to lower birthrates in those denominations. For years Southern Baptist churches grew because their people had more children than mainliners.So Exhibit A is demographics. Fewer children born per family. That doesn't even begin to address the possibility that not as many parents are sending their kids to Sunday School...you know, where they'll learn all about good conservative theology.
When that changed, fewer Baptist babies meant fewer Baptists, Leonard said.
The decline in children among Baptists is seen in Sunday school attendance.
In 1971, there were 1,434,892 children ages 6 to 11 in Southern Baptist Sunday schools. By 2007, the last year for which statistics are available, that number had dropped by about 455,000 to 979,429. At the same time, the U.S. population grew by 46 percent.
"Biblical inerrancy can't hold off demographic realities forever," Leonard said.
And here comes Exhibit B:
The conservative resurgence also had an unintended consequence, said Roger Finke, a sociologist of religion at Penn State University. Finke said growing religious groups often share two characteristics. They have a set core of beliefs as a denomination but allow innovative practices in their local congregations.I'm not about to jump on the bandwagon for Willow Creek or Saddleback, but White's general point about opposition to innovation is an important one. The problem facing churches in decline is less theological and more a willingness to innovate, to evaluate programs and ministries, and to try new things. Churches stuck in the same stagnant rut and refusing to change are the ones that are struggling.
Finke believes that the conservative resurgence stifled innovation.
"They preserved a more conservative theology," he said, "but they ended up placing controls on local congregations."The Rev. Rick White of the People's Church in Franklin saw the disapproval of innovation firsthand.
White supported the conservative resurgence, and was part of the conservative takeover of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. In the 1990s, though, White began to experiment with church growth techniques from seeker-sensitive churches like Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago and the purpose-driven Saddleback Church in California.
That put White on the outs with conservative leaders. The Rev. Paige Patterson, an architect of the resurgence, once referred to churches like Willow Creek as "Satan-sensitive churches."
If there was still any question about the place of theology in the issue of church decline, consider a book entitled Places of Promise, which takes on the role of physical location as a possible hindrance to church vitality. The authors' conclusion is that it isn't. What is crucial to vitality, according to their extensive research, includes how welcoming they are, how meaningful worship is, how much they interact with the community, how much they care for their younger generations, and how much they consider their future, among others. There is zero mention of how a church's theology plays a role.
Granted, many more conservative or evangelical churches are more willing to experiment with new church forms, but the theology itself is not the issue. If it was, then Joel Osteen must be the most Biblically faithful pastor in the nation.
Churches constantly trying to maintain that the way we've always done it or the way we used to do it will always be the right way are the ones in trouble, regardless of theology. And if the problem of more conservative churches like the SBC is "going back" to correct belief, then the problem for more liberal churches like the UCC is staying convinced that we'll once again return to our former place in society simply by writing more angry petitions to politicians (an idea that actually runs the whole conservative-liberal spectrum).
Both mindsets are faulty because they ignore--willfully or not--the need for local churches to innovate and update what they're doing. The issue isn't theology...it's the willingness to communicate one's theology in a new way.