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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

A Church Growth Book Worth Reading

The Churching of America 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy

by R. Finke and R. Stark
Rutgers University Press

The American Evangelical church growth movement seeks to turn the church into a marketing firm for Jesus and the pastor into a visionary CEO who is held accountable for how much revenue, er, conversions he gets for Jesus. Many Lutherans have bought into this vision hook, line, and sinker - and many, many Lutherans are smaller scale stock holders.

So the American Evangelicals - that is, the Willow Creek Association, Saddleback, Billy Graham, etc. - are keen on bringing a bit of American marketing into the church. But what would happen to their theories and methods if they were examined on their own merits? What would a hardcore, free-market economic analysis of American religion show?

Finke and Stark subject the data of American church membership to just this sort of rigorous statistical analysis from the colonial period down to today.

I find their analysis intriguing and ultimately persuasive. The story runs like this. In a free market for religion the high tension "sect" always does better than the accommodating "church." For Finke and Stark, a sect is a group that is as odds with society at large. They are different. They hold to very specific doctrines very tenaciously. They are demanding on their adherents.

"to the degree that denominations rejected traditional doctrines and ceased to make serious demands on their followers, they ceased to prosper." p. 1

A church, on the other hand, is staid. They are comfortable. They line up, more or less, with the world. They get along. They don't believe anything outlandish and are part and parcel of the culture.

The leading sects of today are the Pentecostal groups. They are ferocious about doctrine: just try talking one of them out of the need to speak in tongues. Today's accommodating churches are the United Methodist Church (a very successful sect of the 19th century), the Episcopal Church USA, the ELCA, etc. I dare you to go read the proceedings from any recent UCC or ELCA convention - you'll find pages of resolutions on boycotting China and giving justice to lesbian barbershop owners but precious little of traditional doctrinal fare. They are part of the culture at large. And they are hemorrhaging members.

But you knew that today's mainline denominations were losing members at a breakneck pace. Finke's and Stark's most significant finding is that it has always been this way. The accommodating churches are always fading. The doctrine crazy sects are always growing. It has been this way since the yoke of a State Church was first thrown off.

"By the latter half of the twentieth century, sociologists and historians scrambled to explain the sudden rise of the conservative faiths and the rapid decline of the more liberal "mainline" denominations. We will show that this trend was well underway two centuries earlier. The trend of growing upstart sects and declining mainline denominations has been in place since at least 1776." p3

The Methodists are the most notorious case of a growing, doctrinal, demanding sect becoming a shrinking, institutional, undoctrinal, accommodating church. The Southern Baptist Convention is the textbook case for how a doctrinal sect does not have to give up its strengths when it becomes large, bureaucratic, and well-educated (the hallmarks of a church). The key is to remain doctrinal and "high tension" - that is, to be at odds with the world.

What of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States? Finke and Stark point out that the Missouri Synod was the fastest growing sect from 1916 to 1926. During that time period the Missouri Synod also had the highest number of adherents who rejected ecumenism (89.5% in a 1932 survey) and the greatest perceived differences between themselves and others (as measured by reluctance to marry a member of another church, receive communion elsewhere, etc.). In fact, the Missouri Synod's "perceived differences" factor was three times the nearest competitor (which, it so happens, were all other Lutheran groups combined).

So much for the hard numbers from disinterested sociologists. What to make of this theologically? That, of course, depends on your theology. A free-will Baptist will see in this book new insights and techniques to apply to gaining more converts. But a Lutheran who believes in election will see something else.

I explore this analysis based on the doctrine of election further in the paper I'll be presenting, Lord willing, at the Gottesdienst West conference in June - but here let me just say this. If we cease to look at our countrymen as potential converts whom God has called us to convince into the faith and start looking at God's own elect as the folks we are called to serve who happen to be scattered among the nations...well, things fall into place. Not everybody is a believer, nor is everyone ever going to be one. Narrow is the gate and all that. So I'm not called to minister unto a huge population of "the lost." I'm called by God through the Church to minister to his elect, who happen to be scattered among the nations and will be called through the Word. And what do his elect like? What does God expect me to give them? Oddly enough - just those things that Finke and Stark identify as the marks of a strong, vibrant, and growing religious group: doctrine and a marked difference from the world around us.

Could it be that the sin we are committing is not some imagined lack of preaching the Gospel accessibly and relevantly to the lost, but rather driving God's elect into the arms of Pentecostalism and Roman Catholicism because we've turned down the intensity of our Lutheranism in a vain attempt to appeal to the world?

Pr. H. R.47 Comments