Sunday, October 23, 2005

Fertility And Facilities: Exploding Evangelical Smugness And Disrobing The Theological Myth Of Mainline Decline

A sociological study of mainline and conservative churches from 1900 to 1975, lead in part by prominent Roman Catholic priest Andrew Greeley, is debunking the urban myth that a specific theology is the cause for decline or growth in Christian congregations. To be specific, evangelical "bigger-is-better" zealots often blame liberal theology and social ethics for the decline in mainline church membership numbers (as if size really matters to God).

This new study indicates that the real causes of mainline decline and conservative growth are more simply explained: sex and retention more than theology controls church size. Decline in the birthrates caused by family-planning practices now dominant in American culture were accepted earlier in the twentieth century among women who attended mainline churches than their counterparts in conservative churches. However, current fertility rates between evangelicals and mainliners are virtually the same.

The study indicates that conservatives were more successful than mainline churches in retaining their members. My own view of retention differences is that conservatives are better than mainliners at building mega-church "Christian Life Centers" with comprehensive recreation and entertainment facilities, which are strong attractors, especially when they are conveniently located in suburbs. Large building facilities may point to real amenity differences, but they don't suggest theological differences as attractors.

Fertility and facilities have been the principle causes of evangelical church growth over the last one hundred years. But even that is changing as evangelical fertility is now declining at a mainline rate and as diminishing numbers of mainliners are making the jump to conservative churches. Pay no heed to grand narratives about theological differences. Watch for shrinkage in conservative churches now that evangelical families are getting smaller. It will be fun to watch the myths change to suit.

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