The Limits of Growth as a Measure of Orthodoxy

I’m here because I read the most recent iteration of the nonsensical triumphalist “growth=orthodoxy” blog post. Mark Tooley at Juicy Ecumenism wrote this screed against a post by Roger Wolsey. Wolsey’s post was titled “It’s Time for Progressive Christianity.

Tooley rejects much of what Wolsey says, and on some counts I agree, but as he’s describing the “death” of protestant liberalism, he describes John Shelby Spong’s diocese losing half its members while he was bishop because Spong wanted to save the faith for some. (I have at least one friend for whom Spong did save the faith.) Then Tooley describes the Jesus seminar, like Spong’s earlier seminars, as having been attended mostly by old people.

He says postmodern progressive Christians are unlikely to gain many converts. This is probably true because we’re not as obsessed with evangelism now that we stopped believing anyone who doesn’t agree with us about everything and pray the right prayer is going to hell.

The other thing I notice throughout is that he keeps calling Roger Wolsey a “campus minister,” which is an interesting choice because Wolsey also runs a Facebook page called “Kissing Fish: Christianity for People who Don’t Like Christianity.” This lowly campus minister has a teeny little audience of over 200,000 followers.

Mark Tooley doesn’t mention that, because it goes against the narrative.

The narrative, of course, is that progressive churches are dying out, and this is a sign of God’s judgment. Progressive Christianity is dying out, because it doesn’t have the light of God in it.

This ignores the counter-reality that the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the most conservative (“orthodox”?) Protestant denominations there is, is also in decline, because Christianity is in decline.

This is important to highlight: the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is declining while the other splinter churches are growing, not because the SBC is less faithful than the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) or other splinter denominations, but specifically because the SBC is not a splinter denomination. The SBC does not have a larger Baptist denomination from which to leech members and churches. The SBC is not parasitic, to speak crassly; it does not grow at the expense of larger bodies within the Baptist tradition because it is the larger body in the Baptist denomination.

Here’s what I’m getting at: When a number of churches left my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), because it was getting too liberal (even though ECO pretended that wasn’t the reason), if I recall correctly, the sum of the splinter group gains was not as big as the sum of the PC(USA) losses.

But here’s the biggest thing.

I grew up in a tradition, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist, where size and growth meant the opposite of what Juicy Ecumenism thinks it does. I heard that the big megachurches down the road were growing because they watered down the gospel, and the small churches I was from weren’t growing because people find the truth offensive.

So I’ve heard it both ways now, and I’ve come to realize that sometimes people will use any data they can to explain why they are God’s true people. Here’s how it works:

Why it’s big / growing Why it’s smaller / shrinking
My Church
Blessing from God because of our faithfulness; people are recognizing the truth. We’re being faithful, and the truth is offensive. Straight is the way and narrow the gate.
That other church down the street
They’re tickling people’s ears, telling them what they want to hear, watering down the gospel. They’re not being faithful to God, and people are realizing it and leaving because they want the real gospel.

At some point I realized this was nonsense. If growth is a measure of God’s favor, then you have to say Mormons and Joel Osteen are experiencing the favor of God. If shrinking is a measure of the truth being offensive, you have to give that designation to those mainline denominations, too.

Size is not an accurate measure of faithfulness. (However, if / when I get ordained and if / when my church starts growing by leaps and bounds, I may want to rescind that…)

There are other factors besides faithfulness that influence church growth and size. One of these is how strict the church is – it doesn’t matter if its strictness has anything to do with the Bible, just whether there is a high cost of entry. It’s not about orhodoxy, it’s about sociology and psychology.

Others include the charisma of the particular pastor, how welcoming the congregation is, whether people arrive and see other people who look like them, and how many, what shape the building is in, maybe even whether they’re entertained. Marketing plays a role. Whether the folks are evangelistic is going to make a big difference, as is the size of the town the church is in! There is a whole host of other factors that play into growth, many of which have little to do with faithfulness to traditional Christian doctrines.

At a denominational level, what the church teaches about how many kids members should have will inflate the numbers more than the details of how they explain the Trinity. Even immigration makes a difference, which is why the Catholic church is growing in the US. (I’d love to know what Juicy Ecumenism thinks about that).

Bottom line: Growth doesn’t mean you’re faithful, or that you’re not, and shrinkage doesn’t mean you’re on the narrow path, nor on the other hand does it mean you’ve abandoned the gospel.

Assuming a direct correlation between size and faithfulness is a dangerous and silly game.

Can we stop now?

About David M. Schell






One response to “The Limits of Growth as a Measure of Orthodoxy”

  1. Eleanor Skelton Avatar

    I love this post. So much. <3

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