With all the talk we hear about the decline of Christianity, the churches that are consistently losing members are the liberal churches, while Bible-based churches continue to grow, especially worldwide.
Writing in 2001, Dr. Al Mohler noted, “By the late 1960s, liberal Protestants began asking a rather difficult question. Why were the conservative churches growing? In retrospect, one aspect of the liberal Protestant crisis was reflected in that very question. The mainline Protestant denominations would have been better served by asking why their own churches were declining.”
He referenced an important 1972 book by Dean M. Kelley titled, “Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion.” (In Kelley’s preface to the 1996 edition of the book, he emphasized that everything he had written 25 years earlier remained true.)
What Kelley wrote 1972 could apply to the American church today: “Amid the current neglect and hostility toward organized religion in general, the conservative churches, holding to seemingly outmoded theology and making strict demands on their members, have equaled or surpassed in growth the early percentage increases of the nation’s population.”
As for the liberal churches, Kelley wrote, “The mainline denominations will continue to exist on a diminishing scale for decades, perhaps for centuries, and will continue to supply some people with a dilute and undemanding form of meaning, which may be all they want.”
His words have proven prophetic, as confirmed by recent surveys that indicate that the vast majority of defection from churches today takes place in the liberal denominations, those that have departed from the historic fundamentals of Scripture, those that do not call for real discipleship, those that offer a superficial, non-demanding, just like the world, distortion of the faith.
Several decades ago, church statistician and demographer David Barrett began to report the surprising news that around the world, the most rapidly growing faith was Spirit-empowered Christianity, marked by clear gospel preaching, belief in the literal truth of the Scriptures, and the reality of God’s presence. (The data were compiled in the prestigious “World Christian Encyclopedia,” published by Oxford University Press.)
Although this growth is especially high in Latin America, Asia and Africa, the trend is similar here in America, although not as dramatically, completely defying today’s conventional wisdom (the same “wisdom” that was proven false back in 1972 when Kelley’s book came out).
Writing in the Federalist in August 2014, Alexander Griswold noted, “Every major American church that has taken steps towards liberalization on sexual issues has seen a steep decline in membership.” (His article was titled, “How to Shrink Your Church in One Easy Step.”)
Griswold concluded his article by stating, “Christians have a responsibility to grow their churches, but also a responsibility to promote what they believe is just in God’s eyes. But for some strange reason, it seems like conservative Christians never have to sacrifice one responsibility to fulfill the other.”
This is confirmed in the new Pew Forum report, which showed that evangelical Protestant churches in America grew by 2 million from 2007 to 2014 whereas the so-called mainline (liberal) Protestant churches declined by 5 million, meaning that evangelical Protestants now make up the largest religious group in the nation. (Although this is not part of the Pew Forum survey, my surmise is that the evangelical churches that are most Bible-based and make the most serious, grace-empowered demands on their congregants are, generally speaking, the ones that are growing rather than declining.)
People are looking for certainty, not ambiguity, for truth, not speculation, and they are willing to commit themselves to a cause if they can find a worthy one. (I remember a young man telling me in 2000, “Give us a cause, and we’ll die for it.”)
When we preach a water-downed gospel and call for no more commitment than showing up at an occasional church service, we will attract a certain crowd that wants to satisfy its religious itch, but we will not attract true disciples, those willing to take up the cross and follow Jesus, those willing to go against the grain of the world and do what is right regardless of cost or consequence.
That’s because if Jesus is one of many ways to God, his death on the cross becomes pointless. And if we sit as judges on the Scriptures (rather than the Scriptures judging us), it becomes just another book, even if it is a really good book. As Augustine once commented, “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”
Why, then, base your life on a book that simply contains some good ideas? And why sit and listen to someone preach and teach from this book?
Last year, in an article I wrote titled, “Why Liberal Churches Are Losing Members,” I noted, “Recently, in light of a steep decline in attendance at Church of England services, Baroness Brenda Hale, one of England’s top judges, told a conference at Yale Law School that the Church of England is in decline precisely because it makes so few demands on its adherents: ‘It has no dietary laws, no dress codes for men or women, and very little that its members can say is actually required of them by way of observance.’
“How remarkable. It appears that Lady Hale is aware of the old adage that if something costs nothing, it is worth nothing.”
In contrast, when people encounter the living God, recognizing the ugliness of their sin and their need for the Savior, they joyfully leave everything to follow him.
No wonder conservative churches worldwide are growing. They come much closer to preaching the biblical message about a real Redeemer who delivers us from our sins. And they call us to live our lives in a way that will stand the test of the ages.