Wednesday, November 9, 2005
Myth: Liberal theology caused mainline decline.
Also at the top of my reading list: the Christian Century, which has an annoying habit of publishing really compelling essays that never make it onto their website. Such as the cover story a few weeks ago that debunked the often-cited claim that the mainline churches — the liberals — have been in decline because their people have fled liberal theology for more conservative churches. Um, that's a story that I would have thought the magazine would have wanted a lot of people to see.
Sociologists Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley, and Melissa Wilde developed models for identifying factors that could account for the declining number of mainline Protestants (traditional home of liberal Christianity) and the rising number of conservative Protestants. They tested the various models against the trend lines in the various churches over the 20th century to see which ones most closely matched what has actually happened. The only two factors that could have played a statistically significant role? Birth-rate and slower traffic from conservative into more liberal churches.
Essentially, mainline Protestants adopted contraception earlier than conservative Protestants did, although by the late '70s conservatives' families were finally getting smaller, too. And, as no one will be surprised to learn, conservative churches do a better job of retaining members overall. But the study does show that the "culture war" issues in the churches are unlikely to have been a major factor in the decline of the mainline churches; the demographic trends in fertility were already shrinking the next generation of Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Lutherans.
Although the Christian Century didn't hawk its own story, the Baptist Standard offers a pretty thorough synopsis, from which I quote:
The researchers investigated other possible causes for mainline decline — support for homosexual and abortion rights, a lower view of the Bible, a higher "apostasy" rate, and fewer conversions from outside the Christian fold. But they dismissed these other factors as irrelevant because none could produce numerical changes significant enough to explain the shift in church membership.
"Higher fertility and better retention thus account for the conservatives' rising share of the Protestant population," they concluded.
Because the birthrates only achieved parity in the last generation, though, the conservative churches will continue to grow for another generation as my peers — born in the '70s — have their own children.
("Fertility, Not Theology, Cause of Decline," Greg Warner [ABP], Texas Baptist 10.28.05)
Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 9 November 2005 at 7:45 AM