Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Shift to Conservative Churches

Albert Mohler, host of his own daily radio show and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, recently reviewed David Shiflett's new book, Exodus: Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity. Mohler points out how Shiflett, an author and a reporter who has written for publications such as The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard, National Review and The Wall Street Journal, uses his journalistic skills to dig into the story as to why conservative Christian denominations are growing while liberal church membership is down: . . .

"Americans are vacating progressive pews and flocking to churches that offer more traditional versions of Christianity," Shiflett asserts. This author is not subtle, and he gets right to the point: "Most people go to church to get something they cannot get elsewhere. This consuming public--people who already believe, or who are attempting to believe, who want their children to believe--go to church to learn about the mysterious Truth on which the Christian religion is built. They want the Good News, not the minister's political views or intellectual coaching. The latter creates sprawling vacancies in the pews. Indeed, those empty pews can be considered the earthly reward for abandoning heaven, traditionally understood."

The numbers are telling, as Mohler reveals:
Citing a study published in 2000 by the Glenmary Research Center, Shiflett reports that the Presbyterian Church USA declined by 11.6 percent over the previous decade, while the United Methodist Church lost "only" 6.7 percent and the Episcopal Church lost 5.3 percent. The United Church of Christ was abandoned by 14.8 percent of its members, while the American Baptist Churches USA were reduced by 5.7 percent.

On the other side of the theological divide, most conservative denominations are growing. The conservative Presbyterian Church in America [PCA] grew 42.4 percent in the same decade that the more liberal Presbyterian denomination lost 11.6 percent of its members. Other conservative denominations experiencing significant growth included the Christian Missionary Alliance (21.8 percent), the Evangelical Free Church (57.2 percent), the Assemblies of God (18.5 percent), and the Southern Baptist Convention (five percent).

As Mohler notes, Shiflett doesn't rely on these figures alone. He crossed America collecting personal narratives from both liberal and conservative Christians that confirm the Glenmary study. In one such interview, a former student at a liberal seminary who left school after he felt that he was the only one there who believed in God told Shiflett, "Mainline Protestantism will reach a certain point where it will appeal only to Wiccans, vegetarians, sandal-wearers, and people who play the recorder. No one will feel at home there if they believe in God."

Hat tip to Chuck Colson's BreakPoint via


At Wednesday, June 15, 2005 11:56:00 PM, Blogger George said...

As a lifelong Episcopalian, son and brother of Episcopal Priests, I have to emphatically disagree with the final, indeed arrogant conclusion that the author comes to. God's grace is much larger than the limited definition of the Christian Conservative churches. He reaches out to us where we are and touches us in many ways. It's the arrogance of this kind of dismissiveness that is causing deep divisions in our country and in our faith.

At Thursday, June 16, 2005 10:59:00 AM, Blogger Roch101 said...

I've observed anecdotal evidence of the opposite. But considering that the emperical data offered is five years old and looks back at the previous decade, I'm not sure it describes any kind of current trend. In fact, I would say the observation that people do not want "the minister's political views or intellectual coaching" is an omen for today's conservative churches.

At Thursday, June 16, 2005 1:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is anecdotal evidence of growth within churches that represent a fundamentalist viewpoint. Shiflett probably gives less credit than he should to societal forces. A historian would look at the ebbs and flows of church populations and note that it's a cyclical pattern. In times of societal stress (and this stress can take individualized forms), people often gravitate toward churches that promote spiritual certainty. At the same time, those churches tend to create litmus tests for faith, to insure orthodoxy.

And then this condition wanes, and eventually repeats itself. Shiflett's correct that "people go to church to get something they cannot get elsewhere" but he doesn't offer a very compelling vision of what it is they want.

In fairness to Shiflett, it's the student who's quoted as saying "Mainline Protestantism will reach a certain point where it will appeal only to Wiccans, vegetarians, sandal-wearers, and people who play the recorder. No one will feel at home there if they believe in God." On the other hand, if Shiflett is trying to make a serious point he should be wary of giving a fool his proxy.

Oh yes, and regarding roch101's last sentence: Ditto.

At Friday, June 17, 2005 1:51:00 PM, Anonymous Woody Cavenaugh said...

I am surprised that Shiftlet can get away with saying a reason for the shift from liberal to conservative churches was:
"They want the Good News, not the minister's political views or intellectual coaching."

If you speak of a church as either liberal or conservative you are talking politics. If its religion it should probably be refered to as orthadox (old school) or reformed.

Plus what roch101 said.

At Friday, June 17, 2005 3:21:00 PM, Blogger Joe Guarino said...

Mickey, the numbers in Mohler's review probably do not lie. They are a few years old, although there is no reason to believe they would be substantially different today.

I do like the idea of referring to conservative churches as orthodox-- Evangelicals, other orthodox Protestants, Eastern Orthodoxy, devout Catholics.

As liberal churches increasingly adopt contemporary services, however, they may stop some of the bleeding.

At Monday, June 20, 2005 10:46:00 AM, Blogger Peter Sean Bradley said...

I am an attorney who represents Methodist and Presbyterian churches who are fleeing their denominations. A published decision that I and my partner were responsible for is being used by the three major Episcopalian churches to pull out of the ECUSA. Based on what I've seen, and data provided by the dissident Methodist movement "Goodnews", the overall decline of each of these denominations is between 30% to 40% over the last 40 years, which is all the more remarkable given the increase in population of the United States.

The "arrogant final sentence" isn't far from the truth, and that's a shame given the rich contribution that these denominations have made to our nation.

At Tuesday, June 21, 2005 9:13:00 AM, Anonymous Joel Gillespie said...

"Liberal" and "conservative" have very specific meanings theologically, which may or may not overlap with their meanings politically. It can be confusing. I refer to myself as being of the historic Christian orthodox stream, but that itself is misleading. Spong and all theological "liberals" are outside of the stream of any kind of historic orthodox Christianity, whether protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic. Spong has thoroughly abandoned the bible as a base of authority, which is what theological liberalism does, and his "theology" is just anthropology dressed up. He is without doubt, in the words of the church of past times, a “heretic.” He should just be honest, abandon the “Christian" label, and start his own religion. I’m sure he would have plenty of followers and probably get rich. He should have no place in any church that uses the name “Christian.” If the tent is big enough to include Spong it is big enough to include anybody, which means that Christianity does not mean anything, except that it can mean anything.
There is no denying the shift away from mainline liberal churches of all stripes. As to politics from the pulpits, this has been perfected not by evangelicals and conservative Catholics, but by the liberal churches. The press has allowed the liberal churches to invite politicians to speak for decades. The media has looked the other way while liberal churches organize voting drives and tell people who to vote for. But when conservatives do it or anything like it it is evil. I think no church should do it. It is not the calling of the church in my view. But there is a hypocrisy of the left here that is appalling.


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