Is Triumphalism Making Your Conservative Church Suffer?

You probably heard about the recent research finding that said conservative churches are growing and liberal churches are declining. If you’re a conservative Christian this was definitely some good news. After the media blitzkrieg on Evangelicals following the Trump election victory, this surely brought a much needed relief.

Research is saying that your church is growing because you hold the Bible in high authority, you believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, and importantly, you believe on the Great Commission.

But is it true that churches that have conservative theological beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible grow faster than liberal churches?

When was the last time you saw non-Christian walk into your church? Did that person come back the following week? And the following week? Is she still around? If she is, then praise God!

Let’s make this church growth a little bit more mathematical. Are the number of people fed up by your church less than the number of non-believers who receive the life of Christ in your church every month?

Then why are you celebrating a study that isn’t substantiated by your experiences in your local church?

The simple answer is…

Christian triumphalism.

You and I are easily trapped in the hideous pits of Christian triumphalism. As a conservative, you might be celebrating that research says your church is the only one that is most likely to grow. And you’re convinced only your church, your theology, your clique should triumph in every church metric.

Is that Christ-like?

How Christian Triumphalism Is Impeding Church Growth

Triumphalism and the Conservative church

The body of Christ is suffering because you and I are prone to triumphalism. I agree with Pope Francis who said:

Triumphalism impedes the Church: it is the temptation of a Christianity without the Cross, a Church that only wants to go halfway on the journey of redemption, overly concerned with organization and success, without understanding that real triumph is born out of failure, like the triumph of Christ on the Cross.
-Emer McCarthy reporting on Pope at a Mass

Consider these top headlines from popular Christian sites:

  1. Research Says: Conservative Theology Helps Churches Grow Faster – Christianity Today
  2. Conservative theology helps to increase church attendance, study finds – Breitbart
  3. Bible-centered, conservative churches grow faster than liberal churches, study says – Evangelical Focus
  4. Study: Churches That Teach the Bible Is Literal Grow Faster Than Ones with Theological Liberal Interpretation – Relevant Magazine
  5. Growing churches are conservative churches – Tim Chester
  6. Fastest-Growing Churches Teach Literal Interpretation of the Bible, Study Finds – Christian Post

Isn’t this an example of excessive exultation over one’s success or achievements – triumphalism? But triumphalism is more than boasting about your beliefs, values and traditions. It’s a sign of an unhealthy superiority complex that is repulsive and appalling, even to non-believers.

Such an attitude shuts the doors of the kingdom of God to non-Christians. Christian triumphalism impedes true church growth by ascribing to men, programs or doctrine what only Jesus Christ gives out of his abundant grace.

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
1 Corinthians 3:6

But triumphalism says, “I planted, I watered, and I deserve the growth.” Steve McAlpine boldly stated in an article published by a Conservative Christian website, The Gospel Coalition, Actually, Not All Conservative Churches Grow (And Many Don’t Deserve To).

Is there any church that really deserve to grow?What happened to the timeless truth that only God gives the growth?

Does Conservative Theology Really Help Churches Grow Faster?

To answer this question, I would like to offer a critique towards the way Conservative authors and readers have interpreted the research paper, Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy by David Millard Haskell, Kevin N. Flatt, and Stephanie Burgoyne.

Firstly, the sample size was very small for us to make generalizations like those made by the Conservative websites. Secondly, the sampling area was so small to extrapolate to cities around the world. Thirdly, the research did not claim what most blogs care suggesting.

Here is a better rendition:

Why Theologically Conservative, Stylistically Modern Churches are Growing Faster than Everyone Else – Patheos

Every research article builds on existing knowledge, even if it’s a breakthrough study. The writers acknowledged in their review that they were building on the groundbreaking work of Dean Kelley, who proposed the strictness theory.

Dean Kelley proposed that, “Strict congregations—those with more rules and more exclusive claims—are stronger because they are better than the more lenient churches at offering meaning for their members.” But strictness may mean cultism or legalistic.

This is true in Zimbabwe. The fastest growing churches are ones that force church members to give more than they can afford while promising blessings from God. These churches teach the prosperity Gospel.

Prohibitions are contingent and defined by the congregation’s religious niche (i.e., its potential members). By lining up its congregational practices with its religious niche’s preferred level of strictness, a congregation increases its chances for growth.
-A. Todd W. Ferguson, The Optimal Level of Strictness and Congregational Growth

Therefore, as noted by B. James K. Wellman, Jr. & Katie E. Corcoran, “While religious groups can be affected by national contexts,… everyday lived religion takes place in local contexts that shape religious experience.”

Thus, the economic woes in Zimbabwe make the environment fertile for the growth of churches deep in the prosperity Gospel. This agrees with other studies which showed that church growth is largely independent of theology.

Should churches become strict and modern to attract new members? I’m going to explore more on this topic in my upcoming book, Pew Theology. You can read more about the book here.

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10 Comments

  1. Yes we walk a line between honoring God’s Word and becoming Pharisees. I saw that when a job put me in contact with a young tattooed, pierced lesbian who had been ” burned” by her parents’ church. Praise God I just listened to her heart. That’s a skill I’d needed for a long time! I was able to connect her to a celibate lesbian at my church who has a healing anointing. Yes I truly believe I do need to follow God’s law, but I don’t want the law to keep people from Jesus.

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  2. “Triumphalism is the attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, religion, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over all others” (wikipedia).

    Pope Francis is speaking out against “triumphalism” because he is for a one-world religion where people of all walks of life (chosen lifestyles) and people of all religions unite together with one mind, one heart, one purpose, one voice, one objective and one goal. He is against individualism, division, and exclusion, too. In other words, he is against what Jesus taught with regard to the gospel of our salvation, that Jesus Christ is the only way to God the Father and to heaven, and that only through faith in him can we have the hope of eternal life with God in glory. He is also against what Jesus taught about holiness, righteousness and the need for the people of God to come out from the world and to be separate (unlike, different) from the world, because we are becoming like Jesus.

    So, know what the objective is to all this talk about “Christian triumphalism.” The ultimate goal is the persecution of those who hold to the tenets of the Christian faith, as taught by Jesus and his NT apostles, and who preach the full gospel message of salvation, teaching we must turn from our sins and we must walk in obedience to our Lord (in lifestyle, not in absolute perfection). They want to silence us, so that they can bring about this one-world religion which unites people of all faiths and people of all walks of life (lifestyles). In other words, this is of the beast of Revelation (Rev. 13). So, don’t be fooled by it.

    Sue

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    1. Thanks, Sue. But does Christian discipleship encourage triumphalism? The goal of this post was to show that triumphalism, common among Christians who are not undergoing any form of suffering or persecution, blinds us to pertinent issues in our spiritual walk that need repentance. Consider the hard sayings of Christ, does any of them encourage an attitude of superiority? Rather Christ bids us come and die.

      The issue addressed in this post is regarding church growth. A Canadian study on less than 2,500 church members and less than 30 church leaders found conservative churches with modern styles grow faster than liberal churches. In a mark of triumphalism, all major conservative platforms louded this study. They turned a blind eye to the obvious shortcomings of the study. Isn’t that an example of triumphalism that is detrimental to church growth? That is the question this article seek to explore. I’m sorry if I didn’t make it clear.

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      1. For the record, I pay little attention to such research studies as you noted in your article. What caught my attention was your title, as I had just recently heard that term “triumphalism” used, but more in the way in which I noted in my previous response. So, I was curious as to where you were headed with it, which is why I read your article.

        From my experience, and from what I have read over the years from other Christian authors, many of them pastors of church congregations, it is the modern mega church model which is attracting people in large numbers, not the conservative church congregations which hold the Bible in high authority, et al. These modern mega churches and their wannabes are not so concerned with the authority of scripture as they are with following the teachings and marketing schemes of humans. They do not hold to the tenets of the Christian faith and practice, but rather they favor a more diluted gospel, intended to attract the people of the world to their churches, i.e. as customers to their businesses. So, they get lots of non-Christians who walk into their “churches” and who come back week after week, because “church” is fun, it is entertaining, and they feel comfortable and non-threatened there, because no one is teaching them the true gospel message. So, attracting non-Christians who return week after week, is not necessarily a good sign, either.

        The ultra-conservative congregations, on the other hand, are dying out, as are many of the old liberal churches (the more formal and liturgical ones). At least, this has been what I have noted. I could be wrong. The vast majority of church people and people out in the world appear to be being drawn to the “churches” where they entertain you with well-crafted stage productions and give you a “talk” rather than a sermon, and which go light on the Word, but quote from movies and other secular works and secular authors, in order to engage and identify with the people.

        I do think I know the point of what you are writing about, though, which seems to be taking issue with pride, egotism, self-righteousness, self-superiority, i.e. perhaps like the Pharisees Jesus chided when he was in the course of his earthly ministry. All talk, but no walk. Look good on the outside, but inside does not match the appearance on the outside. Taking pride in human accomplishments, and perhaps in statistics which do not match the reality of what is really going on in these congregations.

        Yet, on the flip side of this, this terminology, i.e. “Christian Triumphalism,” is being used as a back door into Christian persecution here in America and perhaps throughout the world, and Pope Francis is one of its biggest and most powerful messengers. And, my concern here is that your article, to some degree, might be feeding the message they are trying to convey. The term “triumphalism” can have a negative or a positive overtone, and can be taken more than one way, so to come against all that the term means does open the door to Christian persecution, because what the pope, and others like him, are trying to prove is that it is wrong to believe that your faith is the only correct faith, because they regard that to be an attitude of superiority.

        And, yet, to truly believe in the gospel of salvation, we have to believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father and to heaven. And, we have to believe what Jesus and his NT apostles taught with regard to salvation, i.e. that Jesus died that we might die to sin and live to righteousness, not just so we could have a free ride into heaven. But, they see that as having a superior attitude, too, because it identifies sin as sin, and calls for repentance and a walk of obedience to Christ, and that, too, steps on toes. And, they don’t want to offend anyone. They don’t want anyone stating that one religion or one lifestyle is superior (more acceptable to God) than another, but they want tolerance (lenience) and unity of all religions and walks of life. So, just be aware.

        “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Corinthians 2:14).

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        1. Thanks for the comment. I’m currently writing and this comment and the previous one is helping me to seek out the spirit behind some of the latest supposed Christian trends and terminologies.

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  3. True Christianity is not trend it is certainly is not victorious because of numbers. Let us not assume that because a church is growing numerically that it is blessed by God. Furthermore, just because people in a church study the word does not mean that the people are learning that which is pleasing to God. Much more is needed than studies that say this or that about church growth or education. We need to understand that studies prove nothing unless the metric by which they measure is Biblical. Are people coming to salvation or a building? Are people hearing the truth from those who rightly divide the word of God or are they hearing a lie? Let us begin by being discerning.

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  4. So much one could say, but part of the problem, at least as I see it here in the US, is that there a lot of liberals who will NEVER EVER walk into a church because they perceive them as bastions of intolerance and oppression (women, LGBT etc.). These issues are, to many of them, “deal killers” in terms of their participation. The numbers on growth don’t measure the number of people who have become secular humanist because of conservative stances.

    The second point I might add is that there has been a lot of self-sorting in mainline churches. People who are very conservative have left what used to be conservative mainline churches to go to evangelical churches more to their political/ideological preferences. The mainline church is left with those who are both liberal and Christian, which is a smaller piece of the demographic pie. I see many evangelical churches around me boast of their growth in reaching “the unchurched,” but when one looks under the surface, one finds that they include Christians who worshiped every Sunday their whole lives at mainline and Catholic churches that practiced infant baptism and didn’t share their literalist views. In essence, they were bragging about “reaching the lost” when they were only collecting the saved.

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  5. Here is a youtube video which describes pretty accurately what I was talking about concerning the mega-church mindset which has worked its way into much of today’s evangelical church here in America. I can’t vouch for everything in it, but I have personally experienced a lot of what it talks about. Some parts of it I think they could have left out, but overall it gives you a good picture of the reality of what is going on in a large number of churches across the USA and in other countries, too.

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