Is liberal theology really killing the church?

First Church of OtagoThis is an old favourite. It’s a regular occurrence that some survey or other, possibly carefully designed to produce this result, appears to show that conservative churches are doing better in numerical terms than liberal ones. It may be that they’re growing while liberal churches are shrinking, or more likely that liberal churches tend to be losing members while conservatives are holding steady or shrinking at a slower rate, but this is used as clear evidence that liberals are killing the church. So are they?

Any survey of this type faces huge methodological challenges in getting a meaningful picture at all, given the proliferation of different churches, different ways of counting membership and attendance, and particularly the question of how a church is identified as liberal or conservative, in the absence of an objective scale. And then there’s a good chance that a narrow survey for one purpose will be picked up and abused as evidence for something entirely different.

Even assuming that the evidence really supports the bare fact that liberal churches are shrinking, there are glaring problems with any subsequent conclusion that those liberal churches are the reason why the church as a whole is shrinking. It’s tempting at this point to simply type “Correlation does not equal causation” 100 times, but this opens up some interesting opportunities for discussing the true problems for the church, so I suppose I’ll take the scenic route.

Brutal ReligionFirst, the obvious – how many non-religious people outside the church have you heard dismissing the church’s conservative obsession with literal belief in ancient fairy stories, prying into people’s bedrooms and treating women as second-class citizens? And how many have complained that they’re not doing enough of this sort of thing? So unless your “growth” is going to come from other churches, how does conservative theology create growth?

More to the point, liberal churches (as if it makes sense to lump an entire congregation together with identical theological views) are likely to be the natural home of people who have left the church in specific and direct reaction to the conservative shibboleths that are implied to be the solution to the church’s problems. There’s a good argument that it’s actually the conservatives who are the problem.

There’s often a rider attached to this claim, which could partly answer my objections. It adds that conservative churches tend to care about evangelism, while liberal churches couldn’t care less. While this carries more weight as an argument, it’s not an argument about theology, but about evangelism. There’s no evidence that theology and evangelism are necessarily and unavoidably linked, and to say that advertising works is a truism which adds nothing of interest.

Another possible mechanism for the observed data is that liberal churches are the soft underbelly of the church, being more vulnerable to growing suspicion and rejection of religion among the general population. It seems self-evident that most people with significant doubts about the truth or value of a religion will be found at the liberal end of the spectrum, and that any ground lost by that religion will mainly be observed in dwindling numbers at the liberal end.

Open ArmsBut that doesn’t mean that liberal churches are to blame in any way – if they didn’t exist, how many of those fringe members (or their wider congregation) would go down the road to the Full Gospel Reformed Evangelical Church, and how many would find something else to do with their Sundays? Without liberal churches, the church would be in an even worse situation than it is now, unless you take Pope Benedict XVI’s idiosyncratic approach and positively will them to leave for the sake of the church’s purity.

Other issues that might come into play relate to style and choice. Many rural areas have little or no meaningful choice of churches, making direct comparisons all but impossible, and even in cities with a wide choice, style of service and services offered are likely to be a significant draw in some cases independently of theology. In particular, families are likely to gravitate towards big, lively churches (most likely to be fairly conservative in theology) in search of a viable Sunday School and/or a service that’s engaging for young children, but movement in either direction is a lot more complicated than simple identification with either the liberal or conservative tendencies.

If someone wants to tell you that any particular sector of the church is responsible for its decline, the very least you’d expect is a specifically designed survey and meticulously detailed research. If they’re absent, your best bet is to ignore everything they say.

Images courtesy of bjearwicke, Chemtec and Dineiras, used with permission

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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.

4 responses to “Is liberal theology really killing the church?”

  1. chialphagirl says :

    So many factors affect church growth that I would seriously doubt if any one fact could be blamed. And I agree, these results are probably heavily skewed by how they define liberal and conservative. What about the libertarians and such? Do they just screw up the whole survey?

  2. Nicole says :

    i hadn’t heard of any of this. I’m probably on the more liberal end of the spectrum because I believe in taking Jesus’ parables metaphorically (after all, their parables!) as well as other parts of scripture. I do believe in Christ’s death and ressurection as the hope of all mankind. I tend to church hop because I haven’t found one that really suits me, I feel like people too often get politics involved in the church.

  3. Karin says :

    Interesting post. I think the more fundamentalist Evangelical churches grow, not only because of their evanglism, but also because they offer so much certainty, and people tend to like certainty. It’s probably for similar reasons that so many people read the Daily Mail, too.

    In my opionion, if advertisers used some of the techniques used by some evangelists they would probably be accused of preying on the vulnerable.

    The more liberal wings of the church offer much less certainty and may even encourage people to think, which makes a lot of people uncomfortable. The more theologically liberal churches I have come across tend to be more high church and more high brow, some can be too intellectual for the average man or woman on the street. Liberal churches often seem to lack a sense of vision, too.

    Many churches encourage passivity and dependency, which may be why more women than men seem to go to church.

  4. zanspence says :

    Great thoughts!. Do you have any past articles that define your idea of “liberal” and “conservative” church. The terms are very subjective and I couldn’t wrap my head fully around the article because i didn’t know your agreed upon distinction.

    I did notice this: “dismissing the church’s conservative obsession with literal belief in ancient fairy stories, prying into people’s bedrooms and treating women as second-class citizens”. So are conservative churches those that hold to young earth creationism, against redefining marriage and against female pastors? Because then many churches are “quasi-conservative” and possible “quasi-liberal”.

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