Perhaps no sociologist has written on American churches more extensively than Dr. Rodney Stark of Baylor University. Along with Dr. Roger Finke he wrote The Churching of America 1776-1990 Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy (Rutgers: 1990), followed by Acts of Faith Explaining the Human Side of Religion (University of California: 1992). Rodney Stark’s most recent book, What Americans Really Believe (Baylor: 2008) analyzes the beliefs and church-going habits of Americans.
A common theme in all of these books (as well as several others of Stark’s books) is the relationship between belief systems and church growth (or decline). Stark and Finke elaborate on Richard Niebuhr’s thesis in the classic sociological study, Christ and Culture, which traces the progress of movements and sects to churches and relates this to tensions with culture. In Churching of America Stark and Finke chart the progress of Methodism from 1776, when Methodism represented 2.4% of America’s religious adherents, to 1850, when it represented 34.2%. (Probably the most spectacular rise of any church group ever.) Baptists during the same period increased from 17% to 20.5%. The Congregationalists decreased from 20% to 4%. The authors then seek to analyze why Baptists overtook Methodists by 1890. The general thesis is that “high tension” churches, which demand a lot, tend to grow while churches which broaden (and become more inclusive and accommodating) and become “low tension” tend to decline.
In What Americans Really Believe carries the thesis farther and analyzes church growth or decline since 1960. The news for United Methodists and other mainline denominations is not good. In 1960, Methodists represented 6% of America’s population. In 2000, United Methodism represented only 3%. In other words Methodism as a percent of the American population declined by 50% in forty years (and this does not even take into account what has happened since the year 2000). Other mainline churches fared as poorly (The Disciples lost 71% of their market share). At the same time, the Church of the Nazarene increased 33%, the Assemblies of God 225%, and the Church of God in Christ 786%.
These gains and losses are related to what the denominations or groups believe and what standards they maintain. The “high tension” groups, with a clear sense of purpose, strongly held beliefs, and high moral standards, grew. The “low tension” groups, with an uncertain or ambiguous sense of purpose, loosely held beliefs, and accommodating moral standards, declined. Or, to put this in United Methodist jargon, groups which stress a more strict confessional base, high membership expectations, and strong moral convictions, grew. Churches which are casual in their belief systems, accommodating and inclusive in membership expectations, and permissive in moral stances, declined.
Is anybody listening? Is there any truth to this analysis? Is there any response? Do the mainline churches, including United Methodism, have a death wish?
If there is any truth to the Stark findings, one might believe that United Methodists would be seeking to recover Methodism’s core values and core beliefs, and instituting programs and initiatives that would raise membership standards and moral expectations. Instead, the opposite is true. One bishop has argued that the foundation of United Methodism is inclusivism.
This is being presented to us dramatically in an amendment to paragraph IV of the constitution. This amendment, already passed by the General Conference and now before annual conferences in 2009 for ratification, would have the constitution of the church say that “all persons…shall be eligible to..(upon baptism and taking vows)..become professing members in any local church in the connection.” The amendment is deceptively simple yet deceptively deceiving. It basically removes all standards, whether doctrinal, ethical, moral, or behavioral, for membership. Constitutionally the local church cannot require anything of anyone except that they be baptized and speak the vows as however they wish to interpret them. Constitutionally, a church cannot require of anyone that they have an experience with Jesus Christ, or that they should attend membership classes, or give, or act responsibly in society.