18 Church Trends (and More!): Trend 19

Actually, I have one more trend. This is from the Washington Post, by way of Ben Witherington’s blog.

After statistically analyzing the survey responses of over 2,200 congregants and the clergy members who serve them, we came to a counterintuitive discovery: Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth while liberal theology leads to decline. The results were published this month in the peer-reviewed journal, Review of Religious Research [downloads document]. …

[D]ifferent beliefs, though equally strong, produce different outcomes.

For example, because of their conservative outlook, the growing church clergy members in our study took Jesus’ command to “Go make disciples” literally. Thus, they all held the conviction it’s “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,” and thus likely put effort into converting non-Christians. Conversely, because of their liberal leanings, half the clergy members at the declining churches held the opposite conviction, believing it is not desirable to convert non-Christians. Some of them felt, for instance, that peddling their religion outside of their immediate faith community is culturally insensitive.

Now, a couple of cautions.

  1. “Conservative” in this context includes all Churches of Christ. That is, by the definitions used by the authors, both progressive and “conservative” Churches of Christ are conservative. The conservatism in mind is to believe, for example, that Jesus really did die on the cross and really was resurrected in actual earth time and space — not symbolically but as a matter of fact. Or to believe that God really does answer prayer, even intervening in the present world to cause things to happen that would not have happened but for the prayers.
  2. No one has remotely suggested that being more conservative leads to more growth. In fact, sectarianism (we’re the only ones saved) is a major inhibitor of growth (not studied in this report but obviously true). Taking the Bible very seriously as true and authoritative does in fact help a church grow.
  3. There is also a very strong correlation between contemporary musical and worship styles and church growth. “The results suggest that, in aggregate, growing churches tended to use more contemporary instrumentation and presentation technology and declining churches tended to be more traditional. Specically, there were statistically signicant differences in the use of electric guitar, visual projection, and video clips.”
  4. Youth ministry also correlates strongly with church growth.

In summary, according to the report,

In order of effect size in our most fully articulated model (model 3), the church’s use of contemporary worship, the church’s emphasis on youth programs, the theological conservatism of clergy, and the theological conservatism of congregants each had a significant positive effect on growth.

On the other side of the ledger, the age of clergy, the age of the church, the presence of past conflict in the church, and the age of congregants each had a significant negative effect on growth.

A church’s clarity of mission and purpose as perceived by congregants, however, did not have a significant relationship with growth in our model.

I am frankly surprised at the last point, that clarity of mission has little impact on growth. That may be because any truly conservative church will pursue evangelism and care for those in need. Or it may be because we just aren’t very good at pursuing an agreed vision. Or (and this is what I think is most likely true) vision needs to be the Spirit’s vision, not the leaders’ vision. To me, the challenge is (a) for the leaders to find the congregational vision by finding their members’ passions (which are a very strong indication of the Spirit’s leading) and (b) for the leaders to equip and empower the members to follow the Spirit’s lead.

(Rom. 8:5 ESV) 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to 18 Church Trends (and More!): Trend 19

  1. Gary says:

    That mainline Protestant denominations are losing members is at least 30 year old news. But what is the evidence that conservative Christian denominations and congregations are now, in this decade, growing in membership? Conservative churches/denominations did, in many cases, continue to grow numerically for about a generation after mainline Protestant decline set in. But I’m not aware of any evidence of growth for conservative Christians in this century. If there is evidence of such I would be interested in reading it. Last I knew even the Southern Baptist Convention had peaked years ago and has been experiencing some decline. Perhaps I’ve missed accounts of growth of conservative Christian groups. Whatever growth is taking place among conservative Christians is largely among ethnic minorities I’m pretty sure. White Evangelicalism is especially set up for decline going forward as the non-Hispanic white portion of the American population continues to decline. Non-Hispanic whites simply aren’t having enough children to even replace themselves. If the US consisted only of non-Hispanic whites we would be experiencing population decline as a nation.

  2. Gary says:

    Maybe I missed it but I don’t remember this series dealing with demographic trends. American society going forward will have many more seniors as Baby Boomers age. We will have fewer families with children and more singles and childless couples. By 2050 non-Hispanic whites will be a minority. The Evangelical tendency to center congregational life around families raising children will increasingly be out of touch with the changing demographic reality of our nation. With only minor variations almost every developed country in the world, as well as many developing countries, are following these trends. Families worldwide only have about half as many children as they did in 1960. As the world’s fertility rate continues to decline the world average fertility rate per woman will drop below replacement levels at some point in the 2020’s. Within 30-40 years after that world population will begin a sustained decline for the first time since the Black Death of the 14th century. For anyone who is interested in these trends I highly recommend reading what has been written online by Sanjeev Sanyal. He was for a number of years ago global strategist for Deutsche Bank. I find him much more persuasive than United Nations population forecasts.

  3. Johnathon says:

    “I am frankly surprised at the last point, that clarity of mission has little impact on growth.”

    I am not surprised. Mission statements or vision statements or whatever you want call them are extremely overrated and can often be quite counterproductive.

  4. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    I’m not sure that posted recently on the topic, but pretty sure I’ve mentioned somewhere that churches make a huge strategic blunder when they ignore the single population. With delayed marriages, divorce, etc., there are a LOT of singles out there looking for a church that welcomes them as singles and not as people to be fixed. And some churches actually have singles ministries and ministers.

    Singles ministry is very difficult because it covers a wide age with very differing needs — and our tendency to treat a singles ministry as a place to make friends with very little true Christian content. That is, like a lot of our senior ministries, they’re about trips to Pigeon Forge rather than building the Kingdom. So we have a great time together with people who have similar values, but it’s not actually Kingdom work. Not that I know how to do it better. I mean, my preference would be that the church as a whole be busy doing Kingdom work, and singles be with all the others serving Jesus together rather than dividing up based on social status. But what do I know?

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    The SOuthern Baptists are in numerical decline. But community churches are growing in total number — heavily based on transfers but not entirely. They prove more effective at converting the unchurches than most denominational congregations — on the whole. Obviously, there are exceptions.

    The evidence is that, as a percentage of population, Christians are about holding their own since the Reagan/Bush I years. We took a numerical hit during the Moral Majority years when evangelical churches became too tied to Republican politics, pushing many Christians out of the church. You should check out the work of Brad Wright (http://amzn.to/2jgSleo) and Ed Stetzer. The evangelical church is repenting of that mistake as a new generation takes on leadership, but we’re still sorting things out. (My suggestion is that we declare political posts on Facebook a mortal, unforgivable sin. The church would become a much nicer place very quickly.)

    Now, the US population keeps growing, and so a constant percentage is growth at about the overall US population growth rate — which is much higher than the birthrate due to immigration. Of course, this includes Hispanic immigrants, who tend to be Catholic or Pentecostal rather than evangelical.

    Over the much longer run, going back to the Revolutionary War, Wright has shown than Christianity has dramatically grown in the US. I posted a series on Wright’s book a few years ago. Fascinating read.

    One of his key points is that one of the most unreliable sources on Christian growth trends is the Christian press. Too many book publishers and preachers want to announce bad news to motivate church growth book sales and participation in evangelistic efforts. There’s a strong bias toward reading the stats as bad news. I find Stetzer the rare honest reporter who actually understands the stats. Barna, on the other hand, can be agenda driven in his interpretations.

  6. Gary says:

    Jay, I’ve read more on the subject and you’re right. About one in three American adults identify as Evangelical Christian. I was also surprised to read that about the same percentage of Americans attend church regularly as attended in 1940. That is counterintuitive. I’m not surprised that American Christianity has grown dramatically since the Revolutionary War. The late 18th century was probably the most unchurched period in American history. If you ever have a copy of James DeForest Murch’s Christians Only he gives a remarkable account of that period in the Introduction as background for the Second Great Awakening and Cane Ridge Revival.

    The demographic changes that are advancing in the US are huge. As early as 2020 a majority of American children will be other than non-Hispanic White. That’s a huge challenge for White Evangelicalism. The attraction of White Evangelicals to nativism or at least to leaders who are nativists does not bode well for the future.

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