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