What does increasing conservatism in the church actually mean?
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.
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.
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.