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Are conservative churches really growing?

Are conservative churches really growing?

Daniel Schultz discusses conservative churches and membership and exposes the fallacies of the arguments that they are growing because of fertility and stricter moral codes, in Religion Dispatches. Below this story is a report on religion in the world.

A few excerpts from Schultz:

This weekend, NPR’s Scott Simon invited Mary Eberstadt, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, to discuss what lies ahead for the Catholic Church under Pope Francis. Eberstadt used the opportunity to promote the thesis of her forthcoming book, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization.

Despite its title, Eberstadt’s book—and her interview with Simon—peddled a well-worn idea. As Eberstadt herself put it,

Over time, the churches that have tried to lighten up the Christian moral code and put forth sort of a kindler, gentler version of Christianity as they see it, have not done well. They have not done well demographically and they haven’t done well financially. Churches that stick to orthodoxy do better over time because in part it’s only those churches that tend to create families that can be of size and carry on the Christian tradition.

But the heart of Eberstadt’s argument is demographics, and just about every piece of social research released in the few years undermines that argument.


Another plausible explanation is religious out-migration. All American faiths receive new members from some groups and lose a few to others. In recent years, moderate and liberal Protestants have lost more to conservative Protestants and the Catholic Church than they’ve picked up. As if that weren’t bad enough, moderate and liberal Protestants—that is, the mainline churches—have lost the most members to the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated, the so-called “nones.”

Eberstadt had a ready explanation of this phenomenon:

If you water down Christianity, just telling people to be nicer to each other, or to do what the majority seems to want to do, people pretty quickly conclude that it’s easier to be nice at home. Why should they go to church?

Which sounds reasonable enough: who wants to listen to wishy-washy platitudes, or attend a religious-flavored social activist club?

But when you dig down into the numbers, what you find is that not many churches—liberal or conservative—are growing very much. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, has essentially flatlined over the past few years.

Social scientists will tell you that while mainline Protestants might be leading, evangelicals aren’t far behind on the decline curve. And when you ask the people who actually have left the church, a distinct picture emerges.

“Orthodox” churches keep their members in line; liberal ones can’t [Eberstadt]. But how then to explain that the most liberal of the liberal denominations—the Unitarian Universalist Association—is in fact growing? For that matter, one might argue that Catholics have more to lose by alienating liberals than they have to gain by growing conservative families. The bishops seem to have decided just that when they put together their “Catholics Come Home” ad campaign showing a “kinder, gentler version” of the faith.


The story of the rise of the nones in particular is vast, rich, and complex. Its social and political ramifications continue to unfold. Admittedly, there’s only so much room in a five-minute interview, but as it was, NPR wound up giving a platform to a shallow version of orthodoxy, and missed the opportunity to challenge some implausible assertions. That’s not an outcome any news show, or its audience, wants or deserves.

Read here for more on this story.

Anglican Communion News Service offers a report on growth and religion worldwide:

Despite a century-long decline, religious affiliation has shown a marked resurgence globally since 1970. Both Christianity and Islam make up growing segments of the world’s population. Africa and China have witnessed the most marked religious change.

These are among the findings discussed by religious demographer Dr Todd M. Johnson in an overview of religious identity and trends in world Christianity since 1910, presented at the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, on 13 March.


Fastest growth over the century was seen in the category of agnostics and atheists, though both categories have been shrinking since 2000. For the first time, the rise in Christian affiliation in the Global South is outpacing its decline in the North, fuelling net growth of Christianity globally.

If present trends continued, by 2050, 36 percent of the world’s population would identify themselves as Christian, and by 2100 two-thirds of the world’s population would be either Christian or Muslim, stated Johnson in his presentation.


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Well, ChrisH, how about what’s in the article above?

“the most liberal of the liberal denominations—the Unitarian Universalist Association”

Episcopal churches profess a 1600+ year old creed every Sunday. Certainly by UU standards, that’s not very liberal.

JC Fisher

Chris H.

If TEC is not liberal, how do you define the word?

Chris Harwood

Benedict Varnum

Quick reminder: we had this conversation over the summer in response to (conservative opinion writer) Ross Douthat’s piece that laid out a set of imaginary excesses taking place at General Convention, provoking him to write an article: “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”

Diana Butler Bass responded by expanding the question (in the same way as above) to INCLUDE so-called “conservative” strands of Christianity:

Now, I’m not sure how comfortable I am calling the Episcopal Church a “liberal” Christian body. Many faithful persons I’ve known in the churches and communities I’ve been part of have been “conservative” on social, economic, or theological issues. In most of my parishes, I’d hazard a guess that the majority of members were Republicans (I’m a political “Independent” myself). But taking it with a grain of salt, and recognizing that stances such as ordaining women and declining to excommunicate divorcees are “liberal” if you compare them to other “conservative” traditions, there seems to be little enough evidence that “liberal” Christianity is in any worse decline than “conservative” Christianity.

Some quotes from DBB’s piece:

“His argument, however, is neither particularly original nor true. It follows a thesis first set out in a 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing by Dean Kelley.”

“The Roman Catholic Church, a body that has moved in markedly conservative directions and of which Mr. Douthat is a member, is straining as members leave in droves. By 2008, one in ten Americans considered him- or herself a former Roman Catholic. On the surface, Catholic membership numbers seem steady. But this is a function of Catholic immigration from Latin America. If one factors out immigrants, American Catholicism matches the membership decline of any liberal Protestant denomination.”

“A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones, noting that these findings were “counter-intuitive” to the usual narrative of American church life.”

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