Simple Questions: The Why, What, and How of Changing American Christianities

Image via Daniel Oines:

Dear friends and colleagues on the godbeat:

You’ve heard it before: liberal churches are dying because they’re too liberal. It’s been a favorite trope on the right for decades, going back at least to Dean Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches are Growing, originally published in 1972.

Back then, the theory dovetailed nicely with Nixon’s “silent majority” of conservatives seething at liberal overreach in secular politics. In the same way—or so we’ve been told—the pews of America’s former stalwart Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have been emptying out as wave after wave of innocent truth-seeking people of good faith have been victimized by elitist, seminary-brainwashed progressives inflicting monstrous changes upon their congregations.

By now, it’s a received truth among conservatives that Christianity won’t come back in the United States until churches return to fundamentalist theology, militarism, and limited-government market freedom. A few people think American Christians should do more to confront Islam, or that the Catholic church should bring back the Latin mass.

Whatever specifics it comes packaged with, the “too liberal” theory has always had its problems: it never did fully satisfy the sociologists. It’s been pushed over the years by people with an agenda, to say the least. Most obviously, it’s 43 years old! You maybe have noticed that American society is a little different than it was in 1972?

Specifically, Americans aren’t lurching to the right anymore. In fact, according to Gallup, they might even be going the other way, getting more liberal on a broad range of social issues. Yet, as we know, the slide in declining church affiliation continues, and is even accelerating.

Conservatives will no doubt point out that evangelical Protestant churches aren’t in quite the same kind of free-fall that Catholics and mainliners are experiencing. That’s true enough. It’s also true that evangelicals pick up more church “switchers” than they lose, so apparently they’re doing something right in attracting new members.

But if the “too liberal” thesis were still workable, we’d probably see the mainline churches emptying, and social attitudes shifting right. What we have is almost the opposite. If anything, the evidence is that churches are too conservative for the rising millennial generation, and so they’re choosing to disaffiliate.

That’s a debatable proposition, which is actually my point. We’re long overdue for religion journalists treating with skepticism the argument that certain churches are dying simply because they’re too liberal. Given the shifts seen in social attitudes, more evidence for that assertion needs to be given than “mainline churches are shrinking.” If somebody tries to pass that line off on you, they’re taking advantage of your credulity.

Journalists wrestling with the changing face of American religion need to ask some simple but tough questions: Why do you think church affiliation is shrinking? What evidence can you give to support your position? What stake do you have in the conversation?

Those are pretty standard inquiries. But along the same lines, when discussing religion and politics, journalists and media types need to start asking a new question: How will policy or position x play with the unaffiliated?

We’re already at the point in in some swing states where the rise of the “nones” will have an appreciable effect on elections. Before long, they will be a constituency that the parties won’t be able to ignore safely. We might even be there already. Maybe that’s a story your readers haven’t heard before?

Yours in crankiness,
Pastor Dan


  •' Jim Reed says:

    This might not be an issue if the nation sliding to the left or right as much as it is an issue of the nation being ripped apart, and the two sides pulling away from each other at an increasing rate.

  •' NancyP says:

    There needs to be more emphasis on the different social roles played by liberal vs conservative churches. It is my impression that the typical conservative Protestant non-historically-black-denomination evangelical church aspires to be a total environment for its members, and those “successful” churches that reach mega-church status offer a huge array of not-necessarily-religious activities: gyms, swimming pools, social clubs, non-Bible-study reading groups (fiction, etc), dating groups, youth sports, and so on. In other words, the mega-churches can take the place of secular community centers, parks and recreation, libraries in addition to providing the usual Sunday services and volunteer service opportunities. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon in American religious culture – the Methodist-initiated 19th century Chautaquas were intended as wholesome entertainment for churchgoers.
    I am wondering what percentage of the conservative megachurch members are there because they believe in that specific theology expressed at that church, and what percentage are there because they want a generic Christian church on Sunday and one-stop socializing (Mom, Dad, kids all scattering to their respective subgroups) the rest of the time? The additional hypothesis is that the lack of such a spread of socializing opportunities in “liberal” churches means that the attendees are there because they agree with the specific theology and want specific volunteer service opportunities – there are no not-necessarily-religious social events/opportunities.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I think most Americans are involved in the church environment just in case that actually does turn out to be the path to heaven when you die. They see it as something that can’t hurt because if it turns out there is no heaven, in their view they haven’t lost anything anyway

  •' Frank says:

    There is no doubt that the continued rejection of God word and will regarding sexuality, family and marriage is causing the decline in liberal churches. Meanwhile biblically based churches all around the world that hold true to Gods will and word are thriving and growing at break neck speed.

  •' skinnercitycyclist says:

    AHHHHHH-Hahahahahahahahaaha! Keep up the good work!

  •' Jim Reed says:

    They might actually be spiraling down at break neck speed. Either way the breaks will ultimately be the result.

  •' Kelly says:

    Liberal churches in the US are declining, but you have to scrape the bottom of the desperate and ignorant barrels ALL OVER THE WORLD just to keep your numbers up?

  •' Craptacular says:

    How tortured your life must be, Frank. Your short, fact-free retorts seem to point to a somewhat bitter internal struggle with cognitive dissonance, like you are trying to convince yourself of the truthfulness of your own claims.

    I do hope you truly find emotional solace at some point.

  •' Frank says:

    No need to worry about me. I am secure in my salvation and my beliefs.

    Based on your comments you are revealing the firth about yourself , not me.

  •' Frank says:

    Keep believing this nonsense as real Christianity grows at a break neck place all over the world and those that continually deny and reject Gods will continue to decline.

  •' Frank says:

    Except they are not. It’s growing and growing and in our increasing global world this is highly significant.

  •' Frank says:

    I will. Nothing you can say or day will change the truth.

  •' Craptacular says:

    “No need to worry about me. I am secure in my salvation and my beliefs.” – Frank

    Sigh. Of course you are.

  •' Frank says:

    Of course I am. I trust God as best I can.

  •' NancyP says:

    I was addressing differences in conservative versus liberal Christian church roles in the lives of their congregants. My impression is that conservative Christianity tries to create a total environment so that their adherents don’t have to spend as much time around mainstream media, non-faith-oriented public venues, and liberal Christians or non-believers. In an era of declining interest in funding public facilities, and in the explosive growth of far suburbs, a megachurch may well be an attractive substitute for a non-existent community center. For a liberal church, the idea of protecting their adherents from contact with the outside world is laughable – why compete with the secular world in matters that are not truly religious or social-justice oriented? Why bother with an in-church gym, a Starbucks, etc – those aren’t part of the church’s mission.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Yes, that makes sense.

  • Frank,

    All across Africa the American-financed Evangelical churches are in retreat in the face of Islam, for the very obvious reason that what they teach is Chamber of Commerce nonsense.

    The fun one to watch over the next generation is going to be Korea, ostensibly the most Christian country in the world, but in fact the home of al kinds of weirdie crypto-Christian cults. I think the implosion is going to make the vanishing of the Roman Catholic church in Quebec sound like a pop-gun.


  •' Frank says:

    You are welcome to believe what you want. That’s won’t cage the fact that global bible based Christianity so growing and growing and every other type of christianity is dying.

  • Which makes you happier, Frank, your imagined growth of American-financed evangelism in the Third World, or the slow death of American Christianity (other than your own peculiar brand, of course)?


  •' Frank says:

    As long as the Gospel is being taught and proclaimed I am happy.

    The growth of global Christianity is not imagined. Do you always just live in your bias instead of reality?

    And yes false Christianity in America is slowing dying as seen in the decline of progressive churches.

  •' jimmeisnerjr says:

    Did you even read the article?

    “But if the “too liberal” thesis were still workable, we’d probably see
    the mainline churches emptying, and social attitudes shifting right.
    What we have is almost the opposite. If anything, the evidence is that
    churches are too conservative for the rising millennial generation, and so they’re choosing to disaffiliate.”

  •' Stephen Abbott says:

    It’s not so much “too liberal” as it is “too political. ” Focus on left-leaning politics in their pulpits – almost exclusively, to the point that religion has become all Global Warming and gay rights all the time – is in fact a membership-killer. Not only is it boring and tedious, it’s a perversion of religion as egregious as the over emphasis on “instant salvation by Jesus’ blood (sans good works)” is in Fundamentalism. Except Easy Believism is growing. Because it’s flashy and, well easy.

  •' Stephen Abbott says:

    The American “gospels” of faith without works and “God wants us to get rich” ARE false Christianities.

  •' connorwood says:

    This article is a classic example of a writer using sarcasm and snark to dismiss a hypothesis, instead of offering a substantive critique.

    >it’s a received truth among conservatives that Christianity won’t come back in the United States until churches return to fundamentalist theology, militarism, and limited-government market freedom.

    This is not what strict church theory argues. It specifically argues that churches that ask members to pay significant costs for membership – in the form of sacrifice, tithing, believing doctrines that contravene secular thought, and even wearing clothes that make them stand out from mainstream society – will tend to be stronger, because they will eliminate the half-committed who otherwise would be a drain on the church’s resources without contributing much in return. Lee Iannoccone, William Irons, and Richard Sosis have all written extensively on this, and none of them has anything like a pro-conservative church agenda. They’re just pointing out that societies that offer membership to just anyone, rather than putting up investment barriers, are going to get weakened by free riders. This is a game-theory problem, not an ideological one.

    But hey, this is the internet, where facts don’t matter and substantive discourse is against the rules. So by all means, please continue the clickbaity distortion and cartoonish misrepresentation of others’ ideas.

  •' Frank says:

    Faith produces good works but we are saved by faith alone.

    I agree on the get rich part.

  •' Frank says:

    I did. There is no deny the data. Progressive churches are dying while biblically based churches are shrinking a bit and global bible based churches are thriving.

    And yes millennials, just like previous generations, leave the institutions and just like previous generations, when they mature they will be back.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    He did explain after that.

    debates over issues like national boundaries, environmental regulations, religious minorities, fetal identity, economic redistribution, and so forth will continue and even intensify.

    Daniel has been around long enough to know sometimes a little bit of sarcasm can help you make a point on RD.

  •' connorwood says:

    Can help get you hits, you mean. Tough to make a real point when you’re not addressing the actual claims your opponents are making.

    Millennials are disaffiliating from the mainline churches much faster than they are from the conservative ones – or the really high-investment barrier ones, like the Amish. You can’t dismiss a profoundly well-tested, well-corroborated theory with an appeal to “evidence” that you don’t even cite when you show every sign of having barely skimmed any of the actual literature on the subject.

    But hey, welcome to the internet, where everyone is a middle-schooler and substantive engagement with issues gets you downvoted. Hooray for the future of public dialog!

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The real issue is the world is growing more sophisticated in its understanding. Christianity is based on the concept of having Jesus in your heart to guide you and save you and take you to heaven when you die. This becomes more strained as the modern world comes to the understanding that Jesus is a creation of the church from early centuries, and not an actual historical person. I am sure it will take two or three generations to work through all this, but long term there is not much left of the Christian church as the world matures. Plenty to argue over in the meantime.

  •' Craptacular says:

    “And yes millennials, just like previous generations, leave the institutions…when they mature they will be back.” – Frank

    “Just like” previous generations? So all those studies are wrong then, are they? They certainly don’t seem to show the millennial religious behavior “like” or “just like” previous generations. Who is denying the data again? It gets a bit confusing when I try to keep up with which facts you accept and which you reject.

  •' Craptacular says:

    “Faith produces good works…” – Frank

    You have some proof?

    Because I can provide numerous examples of “faithful” people not doing “good works.” In fact, I can point to institutions of the “faithful” doing horrible things. Yet you trot that line out like it has some sort of statistical significance…so please, give me some solid proof that “faith produces good works.”

    Oh, and I will require more “good works” than the non-faithful provide in order to accept your premise. Take your time, I can wait.

  •' Frank says:

    Faith produces good works. If no good works follow I would question the faith.

    People of faith are more generous studies show.

  •' Frank says:

    Time will tell. Data is not produced until it happens.

    When Millennials mature they will be back in churches. Just like previous generations.

  •' Craptacular says:

    “A new study by the University of California, Berkeley, suggests athiests and agnostics are more willing to help other people than those who identify themselves as religious.” – NY Daily News, May 4th, 2012

    Try again.

  • extreme Muslims mirror the Conservative Christian ideology: woman should have no rights, minority religions should have no rights, and Theocracy. Seeing as the Founding Fathers stepped in and all but stopped that here in America, it is actually UnAmericsan to live and think like a Conservative Christian who wants the bible to be the law of the land, which is a Theocracy!

  •' Craptacular says:

    “When Millennials mature they will be back in churches. Just like previous generations.” – Frank

    Despite the fact that the youth falling away are in record numbers? Hope in one hand and take a crap in the other and see which one fills up first.

    From May 30th, 2015 article on Patheos (author: Epiphenom), regarding a massive (11 million students) study done by the University of San Diego:

    “The data they used were from four surveys that have been run annually since 1976 – the ‘Monitoring the Future’ program has surveyed 8th, 10th and 12th graders, while the American Freshman Survey polled first-year university students.

    What they found was a clear picture not only of declining religious affiliation, but also of declining interest in religion altogether.”

    And I did not even address your assertion that those from my generation “are back in churches now that we are mature,” which is another fact-free statement. Want me to start on that bit, too or is your cognitive dissonance acting up again?

  •' Frank says:

    Every young generation has rejected the current institutions, until they grow up.

    Of course you fail to mention it’s not faith they are giving up just the institutions of their parents.

    Try again.

  •' Craptacular says:

    “Of course you fail to mention it’s not faith they are giving up just the institutions of their parents.” – Frank

    “…but also of declining interest in religion altogether.” -my previous post, from which, surprise surprise, you choose to ignore particular statements, since they don’t conform to your belief.

    Keep trying, though.

  •' Frank says:

    If you were smart enough to actually look at the data you would see what I said is true. But you and truth are strangers as you have proven over and over.

  •' Frank says:

    In case anyone is interested in the facts:

    According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, more than two-thirds of the unaffiliated believe in God; nearly four in ten say they are “spiritual” but not “religious”; more than one-fifth say they pray every day.

  •' Craptacular says:

    Ah, so you want to apply general population statistics to a particular subset of the population (youth). Once again with the pick-and-choose method of filtering your facts.

    Keep trying, though…I sense you are getting closer and closer to the edge of the cognitive dissonance. Keep going, almost there.

  •' Frank says:

    It must suck to be proven wrong as much as you are. I understand.

  •' Craptacular says:

    “It must suck to be proven wrong as much as you are. I understand.” – Frank

    The wise-ass part of me wants to tell you that of course, anyone that has been as wrong as you have been on as many subjects as you have, would understand.

    But the nicer part of me realizes this is your way of avoiding the cognitive dissonance, so I should be more understanding and caring. I am trying to be nicer, so I’ll leave it at that.

  •' Anthony Edwards says:

    There hasn’t been a “liberal” church since the late 1970’s of any note or influence.

  •' james warren says:

    The church is not dying but the ancient theology is no longer compelling or persuadable these days. Both Islam and Christianity–as history tells us–will either change or die out when it no longer meets people’s needs. Maybe we need to stop worshiping Christ and start learning to follow Jesus. It’s astonishing that the beliefs and theology ABOUT Jesus trumps the actual parabolic teachings OF Jesus.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    That is the basic problem with Christianity. Everybody wants a return to Jesus, but there is no Jesus to return to, so it just continues. When the religion is gone, then people will see it is about society working for humanity. When it is about somehow better following the whatever teachings of Jesus, the focus is on Jesus, and what you believe, and the enemy is those who don’t believe. Religion can’t help. It can only hold us back.

  •' CitizenWhy says:

    Evangelical churches work because they build community, in positive ways (many activities, fellowship circles)and negative ways (licensing the hatred and contempt for some target group, and for much of proven science) and in accepting the corporate induced line of Billy Graham that any government aid to teh poor and middle class is a form of idolatry.

    Catholic parishes used to be powerful community builders. Now they are not, dominated by ideological pastors instead of community building pastors. Many churches are simply no longer needed for community building, replaced by sports, arts programs, the gym, indie coffee shops, physical activities (BMX, skate boarding, for instance). St. Augustine stated that Holy Communion was for the benefit of each other, not God, since God is self-sufficient and does not need what we offer.

    Where Catholic churches – an liberal ones – have adopted some of the Evangelical practices they are attracting new members, including the young. I see this is my rather secular city where the Evangelical Covenant Church, a Gospel church as opposed to a Book of Revelation church, is growing. This church comes out of the Swedish pietist movement emphasizing reading and understanding and living the Gospels. It’s not much for declaring doctrines and demanding ideological conformity.. Locally this church also tends not to use its denominational name but other names like City Church. I am not a member. Just pointing out that it operates here as a liberal church, it builds community, and it is attracting the same kind of young people whose friends may well be nones (a whole lot of us where I live).

  •' CitizenWhy says:

    The most significant difference among US Christianities is whether a church emphasizes the Jesus of the Gospels or the Jesus of the Book of Revelation (including the peculiarly American addition of the Rapture). Many liberals don’t get this.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Without rapture and Jesus returning and Jesus taking believers to heaven, Jesus of the Gospels might not even be needed. The gospels were written using the wisdom of preachers of the day, which is pretty much the same as the wisdom of humanism of today. If we just followed the principles of humanism, and didn’t try to do it in the name of Jesus, we might be able to avoid a lot of the problems that come with Christianity.

  •' Abide says:

    I am a newspaper reporter who writes a lot of religion stories and the recent Pew data has motivated several stories lately. Not once have I assumed mainline churches are shrinking because they’re too liberal. However, I did write a story about church marketing that is largely critical and suggests mainline Protestant churches are failing to stoop to such worldly and unChristian behavior.

  •' Abide says:

    Tell that to the Rev. Peter Morales and the entire association he’s responsible to lead because we are intentionally and vocally liberal and have been since we were the first to ordain an openly-gay minister in the early 1970s.

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