What does increasing conservatism in the church actually mean?

Church Sign

A sign of a growing church?

It’s often said (by conservatives, admittedly) that conservatism is the answer for the church. The claim is either that most churches have conservative theology, or that conservative churches are the ones that are growing, or something similar. The typical conclusion from people who quote these stats is that liberalism and conformity to cultural norms are killing the church. But is that a justified conclusion?

There are obvious problems with these statistics, even if they’re accurate – if the proportion of churches that are conservative is rising, that may be an indication that liberals are deserting the church, quite likely because they’re sick of being associated with those conservative views. And if conservative churches are actually growing in numbers, that may well be down to demographic and ethnic changes, with African Christians (for example) proportionately more likely to be conservative.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that these claims can be taken at face value as not only true but meaning that people are finding conservative churches more appealing, while being turned off by liberal belief. That would surely mean that those conservative beliefs are becoming more common in general, right? Well, maybe not. It might even mean that they’re becoming less common.

Church Upside Down

This turns everything on its head

At this point, you’re probably thinking that I’ve completely lost it. You can quibble about the meaning of different statistics, but it doesn’t make any sense to claim that a rise in the popularity of a view is because that view’s dying out. On the contrary, it does (or can do) when that rise is restricted to a specific subset of the total population, and here’s why.

As culture changes, certain viewpoints become socially unacceptable. Believing that women belong in the kitchen, or that gay people are perverts, is increasingly likely to prompt an angry or dismissive response. Such views are considered dated, backward and even bigoted, and are therefore effectively suppressed in society in general.

But if you attend a conservative church, you belong to a group where it’s not just legitimate but even expected that you will believe that women are inferior to men (the word “complementary” is generally used, but let’s not kid ourselves) and that the only acceptable sexual union is between a man and a woman.


Just add women

Not only does the church provide a supportive environment for those views, it also offers a plausible excuse for them when speaking to people outside the church. It’s not my fault, I’m not prejudiced, this isn’t my idea, it’s just the historic teaching of the church about the clear nature of God’s creation. As society rejects views as backward, the dwindling number of people who hold them are increasingly drawn to any group which shares their prejudices.

This would be very bad news for the church – they’re attracting more and more people who are stuck in the past, they’re alienating the growing majority who reject those views, and as with so many cultural changes, they will eventually emerge looking backward and out of touch in the most damaging way possible – denying the fundamental equality of all people.

I don’t make any definitive claim here – this is a little speculative, but I think it’s a plausible explanation. If you accept the premises that people in general are becoming more socially liberal, but conservative churches are generally stronger and larger, this hypothesis seems to fit the available facts.

If that’s the case, the church needs to sit up and take notice before it slips into oblivion.

Photos by quasireversible, quinet and Casey Serin, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

6 responses to “What does increasing conservatism in the church actually mean?”

  1. Neil Rickert says :

    It’s often said (by conservatives, admittedly) that conservatism is the answer for the church.

    This sort of viewpoint really puzzles me. I cannot read the Gospel accounts without noticing that Jesus was a liberal social reformer, opposing a conservative Judaism.

    To paraphrase Mark 8:36 – For what shall it profit the Church if it gain the whole world, but loses its own soul?

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I think it’s possible to read many different interpretations of Jesus and his message, and it’s also worth distinguishing between theological and political conservatism, which may be related (more obviously in some contexts than others) but aren’t the same thing.

      I should probably have been clearer about that.

  2. 2012 and all that says :

    Are they growing or merely getting louder in the face of the fact that they and their views are becoming less widely accepted?

    Thinking back to my uni days, one of the periods I studied was Anglo-Saxon England. Symbols of pagan belief were not generally known until the conversion period. As Christianity swept England, the increasingly marginalised pagans were determined to wear their symbols and display their art in a desperate attempt that people will not forget the old ways and perhaps turn the tide against the new religion. Perhaps, just perhaps this is the same sort of thing…

  3. unklee says :

    I think the situation varies from one country to another, and within countries too. I don’t know where you live, but I find in Australia that the church isn’t nearly as influential as it appears to be in the US, not as traditionally part of the landscape as it appears to be in the UK.

    And I think conservatism has different aspects also. For instance, I find there is a growing number of christians who are far from conservative about war and non-violence, social justice, care for the poor, the Bible, etc, while still more conservative about abortion and spirituality for example. I think those churches are going ahead, while I think ones that are conservative in all things have a limited future.

    Many christians these days see the age of Christendom (from Constantine to the late 20th century, when the big churches had political and social power and influence) to be the worst time for the church, and we welcome the loss of that privilege as a step in the right direction. I believe, and hope, that in the future christians will be less obvious in public, but very active in caring for the poor and underprivileged, peace-making, community support and in sharing their faith in less triumphalistic and more organic ways.

    I think that is the real future, and not just a pipe dream. Best wishes.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      That sounds quite appealing. But while churches are uniting to compare the UK government to Nazis because they dared to suggest that it might be nice to give gay people the same rights as straight people, I’m going to struggle to imagine such a wonderful future.

      • unklee says :

        I think there are two different aspects here – what christians believe and what they do about it. I think there is some softening of christian views on homosexuality (christians still generally think it is not God’s plan for us, though there are some who are totally OK with it), but a great deal of change on the implications of believing that. More and more christians think gay marriage is a civil matter and in a pluralist society, people should be left to make their own ethical choices (within the limits of harming others). But I think many churches (not all) haven’t made that step yet.

        Part of the future of christianity, I believe, based on some analysis I have read, is for it to be less denominational, and for people to pay less attention to the pronouncements of its leaders (e.g. many western Catholics now take the pill, I understand). The denominations may have to be dragged kicking and screaming into this new future, but I believe it will happen because they are already losing influence, and soon no-one will take much notice of them.

        So just be patient, but don’t hold your breath! : )

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