David Haskell notes that the mainline, liberal denominations in the US are shrinking by one million members per year. Twenty years ago, John Shelby Spong had attempted to address this decline in a book entitled Why Christianity Must Change. Spong is a bishop in the Episcopal Church. His title reflects the argument of his book. Spong no longer believes in theism, virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus or that there is any external objective standard to govern behavior for all times. He argued that Christianity must change its beliefs. His book was praised by liberal clergy at the time of publication, but twenty years later the decline continues.
Haskell himself was involved in a five-year study of churches in Canada. The results of this study concluded that liberal churches are declining and conservative churches are growing. And more importantly they found: “Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth, while liberal theology leads to decline.”
To help us understand the difference between conservative and liberal beliefs found in this study, Haskell gives examples.
Believe in a bodily resurrection of Jesus and an empty tomb.
93% of conservative ministers
83% of conservative worshipers
56% of liberal ministers
67% of liberal worshipers
In addition, conservatives took seriously Jesus’ command to make disciples, while liberals tended to think it was culturally insensitive to share their faith outside their own faith group.1
Admittedly there is concern when we see those in the atheist, agnostic or disconnected category grow from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014 in the US according to a Pew Research Center poll. Much hand wringing is going to occur and ill-advised solutions proposed. I am convinced that the path to growth will always involve going back to the Bible and teaching what it says with faithfulness.
We are going to face a situation much closer to what the first century church faced. The Christian message must go into the marketplace of competing worldviews and effectively communicate our message. I believe Christianity is rational, has sufficient evidence, and provides the best explanation for human existence. But we may not be able to begin our conversations with people assuming a common background in the Bible as Christians did in the 1950s. Communicating the faith may be more difficult, but it still can be done. The first century church proves it can be done.
Growth will not come by changing our message. The growth we seek is not by compromise.