How Do Churches Grow?

by Leroy Huizenga
From First Things

The Episcopal Church is in the news again for the usual reasons. First, a few days ago it was reported that the Episcopal Church suffered a 23 percent decline in attendance from 2000 to 2010. Second, on Tuesday the Episcopal Church approved rites for blessing same-sex unions. Many commentators made what seems to be an obvious connection supposedly supported by sociology: liberalism in religion leads to the decline and death of denominations. “Conservative churches are growing,” we heard yet again.

I bring up these recent developments not to pick on Episcopalians or Anglicans, especially as I used to worship in a wonderful Anglican congregation, but rather to raise questions about assumptions concerning theological ideology and denominational decline. It may be true, roughly speaking, that more conservative churches do better holding on to members and attenders than more liberal churches, but what does “liberal” and “conservative” mean? Does it have to do only with doctrine (or even simple politics) or also with other matters? We need to go deeper.

Again and again one finds the claim that the Church must acculturate or die, whether in Benjamin Jowett in the nineteenth century, John Shelby Spong in the twentieth, or Hans Küng in the twenty-first. In the Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown has one of his liberal characters say, “Third-century laws cannot be applied to the modern followers of Christ. The rules are not workable in today’s society.” Recently, blogger Rachel Held Evans issued a post lamenting how Christian engagement in fighting for traditional marriage is supposedly driving the young away that went viral. But as Rod Dreher pointed out in a thoughtful and faithful response, the young aren’t flocking to liberal flocks; they’re becoming “nones,” who are spiritual but not religious:

But—and here’s the thing—[Robert Putnam and David Campbell in American Grace] also found that liberal churches are not benefiting from the culture shift. Bob Putnam has said . . . if the Christian church wants to hold on to its young, it will have to liberalize on homosexuality. But his own research shows that liberalization on homosexuality has not benefited the churches that have done so. They continue to decline as well. Something else is going on with young Americans and institutional religion.

Here is where the idea that “conservative churches are growing” breaks down. It’s true to an extent, because “conservative” churches make demands on members in terms of practice and belief, whereas “liberal” churches nowadays often provide members with little more than a question mark. People don’t get out of bed for that. Indeed, on John Paul’s watch, the world’s nominal Catholic population grew from about 750 million to 1.25 billion. Part of that is due to population growth, but certainly not all. But what do “conservative” and “liberal” mean?

Most employ these terms with reference to doctrine—so, for instance, churches that teach Jesus’ body was literally raised from the dead have healthier numbers than those who have effectively if not officially surrendered the idea. But there’s more to religion than doctrine; there’s also worship. And, perhaps ironically, churches conservative in doctrine are often liberal in liturgy while churches liberal in doctrine are often conservative in liturgy. “Conservative” congregations have forms of worship so far removed from traditional Christian liturgy that those forms would be either unrecognizable by prior generations of Christians or reckoned as pagan, while “liberal” denominations—the ELCA, TEC—maintain the fundamental forms of traditional liturgy.

Accommodating to culture in hopes of holding on to numbers simply doesn’t work. As William Inge once observed, “If you marry the spirit of your own generation, you will be a widow in the next.” But ultimately we Christians must also confess that it’s not about numbers, but about fidelity, and letting the numbers fall where they may. We should keep the end of John 6 in mind:

Many of his disciples, when they heard it [Jesus’ teaching on eating his body and blood], said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” […] After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.

To hold on to those tempted to become Gnostic “nones,” we must attend not only to doctrine but to liturgy, so that our faith becomes neither an acrid intellectual system nor an empty form but rather an all-encompassing culture embracing the whole person, body, mind, soul, and spirit, in a community of love. This, I think, is why Catholics have been much more successful in retaining our people than Protestant bodies in the face of the cultural pressures we’re all facing, as a recent CARA study revealed. For all our obvious problems, traditional doctrine and liturgy work together to give people a transcendent sense of home in a robust culture, the Church.

Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.

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5 Responses to How Do Churches Grow?

  1. JessicaHof says:

    A wonderfully thought-provoking piece. Are doctrinally conservative churches really more liberal in Liturgy? The Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches do not fit that paradigm; is it only for the West? Thank you for posting this.


  2. marcy says:

    I think that the “doctrinally conservative” part was more about the protestant denominations than either the Eastern Orthodox or Catholic Church, both of which are doctrinally conservative (at the highest levels at least) and liturgically continuous.


  3. JabbaPapa says:

    An interesting piece — but of course the religious truth is not in conservative versus liberal, but in orthodoxy.


  4. kathleen says:

    [C]hurches conservative in doctrine are often liberal in liturgy while churches liberal in doctrine are often conservative in liturgy.”

    Unless, as Marcy says, the author was referring only to many Protestant churches, I would disagree with this statement. In my experience the more “conservative” Catholic congregations celebrate the Liturgy in a far more beautiful and Traditional way.

    To be honest, I don’t really like the terms “conservative” or “liberal”, especially if we are talking about Doctrine; they don’t make sense. There is only one Doctrine of the Catholic Church. Those that do things in their own way, away from the stated norms of the Liturgy, are disobeying the Pope and Magisterium, so rather than calling that “liberal“, it should be called “dissenting“.


  5. JabbaPapa says:

    You’re right, kathleen — a theological opinion concerning doctrine can be conservative or liberal (or neither), but not, as you say, doctrine itself.

    I did read that statement as relevant to the various Protestant groups, too, and not Catholics.


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