Actually, Not All Conservative Churches Grow (And Many Don’t Deserve To)

A recent blog post doing the rounds shows that conservative churches grow at a faster rate than liberal churches.  No surprises there.  After all who bothers getting out of bed to go and hear stuff that the whole world is committed to anyway.  Liberal theology has hollowed out the mainline denominations, and it’s no wonder.

But not all conservative churches grow.  If they did then there is hope for the hundreds of tiny dying little tight churches across the UK, Australia and the USA. There are plenty of churches committed to conservative theology that are now reduced to twenty or thirty older people bouncing around a building that once housed five hundred or more.  Their combined ages may be roughly the same as the five hundred, but that’s about it.

And what’s more, not all conservative churches deserve to grow.

What types of conservative churches don’t tend to grow and why don’t they deserve to?

1.Churches That Are Conservative and Tight

That’s the group I am talking about right there.  The conservative churches that hold to a strongly conservative doctrine, but are completely nit-picky about absolutely everything non-essential. They have a closed hand about many of the open-handed issues that evangelical Christians have agreed to disagree about.They also tend to have a suspicion of the wider culture, and view many of their personal preferences as theological values.

Those types of churches are not growing.  A cursory trip around the UK cities will prove it once and for all. They don’t deserve to grow and as they shrink they fall into denial and introspection. Eventually they have a tonne of money, a bunch of property and no people.

The last one to leave turns out the lights.

2. Churches That Are Conservative and Bullying

Okay, they grow for a while, but something happens and then it all falls in a heap, people leave, lives are hurt and the gospel is shamed.  Sometimes the bullying leadership manages to regroup, smooth things over, trash-talk those who left and treat them as pariahs, before a fresh bunch of meat, oblivious to the past trauma, turns up.  And the whole thing starts again.

There’s an irony in writing that for me as the initial blog post that sparked my response has a link to such a group; a group that ticks all the right theological boxes, but which treats the sheep with great disdain.

Such groups don’t grow for a number of reasons,

Firstly they can’t hold on to good and godly leaders who fearlessly tackle sin even among their own ranks.  They end up being self-selecting, and find that lesser-leaders who don’t push back will put up with the abuse.

Secondly, they boom and bust. You can’t grow if you have to keep re-grouping. If you’re the bullying senior pastor and you live in a big enough country, you fly over six states and start it all again.

 Thirdly, you certainly can’t grow if you have to spend too much time and energy putting out the spot fires that you are starting.  The rumblings of your abused people and your disaffected leadership will take some time to resolve, time that you can’t put in to gospel work.

By God’s grace these types of conservative churches don’t grow over the long haul, and they don’t deserve to either.

3. Churches That Are Conservative For Its Own Sake

Conservative churches in and of themselves don’t grow.  But conservative Churches that are gospel-saturated do grow.  That’s a big difference.  You can have all of the conservative theology in the world, but if you don’t love Jesus and others deeply, and deeply enough to share Jesus with others, you will stagnant – eventually.

To be conservative for its own sake is no guarantee for growth even as the pendulum of the culture swings back towards conservatism.  Without the leavening effect of the gospel on the church’s internal life, and the centrifugal effect of the gospel on the church’s  external goal, things will wither and die.  As they should.

So when you read a blog post that says conservative churches grow, take it with a pinch of salt. Conservatives all too readily fall into the trap of thinking that their conservatism will do what only openness as opposed to tightness; gentleness as opposed to bullying; and gospel ends as opposed to conservative ends in themselves, will actually do.

Anything less than that just gives “conservative” a bad name.

10 Comments

  1. Yo bro – thought i would post here rather than on Fightbook (shhhh, or Dean Norman will read this). Interesting synopsis of conservative churches which might indeed be the case, but you are simply not right about liberal churches, both in terms of their death and in terms of what the believey (relative to ‘the world’). Having travelled this circuit a bit with Jess recently, I have been to large, ‘liberal’ churches that are thriving, and for probably good reason. Here’s my two-cents on them and the issue.

    1. They are urban rather than suburban. No surprises that suburban churches are conservative, that is a distinguishing feature of suburbia politically and economically. If you are a conservative worker drone in the burbs and not an evangelical christian, then there is nothing about liberal churches that would attract you from the golf course on Sunday morning. Urban liberal churches fan out from the centre of cities. Their liberalism is centred on economic and social justice, including the environment, with a broadly tolerant (rather than accepting) view of a wide range of ‘lifestyles’ (given their congregation often mixes students, other-church refugees, immigrants from less open societies etc).
    2. They are characterised by a very broad range of theological views (on the ground) and also (but less so) in the pulpit. But generally centred on orthodox biblical, liturgical Anglicanism/episcopalianism and stretching either side.
    3. The have a surprising open pulpit as a result of 2, and are not afraid of dissent. They trust the congregation either to have accepted different views exist or (in many cases) not to have noticed the differences more than the similarities.
    4. Church is a 365 day event, with variable congregations, styles, events etc. Lots of engagement with government or ecumenical support agencies. One example – blessing the whole London marathon as it runs past the first mile at Charlton. Interesting (and surprisingly large number of people seeking out the blessing, but it WAS with sprinkling with water – mind you it was also cold and raining).
    5. Not many stock-brokers or people who work in financial services (see 1 above). Lots of itinerants (students searching for their theological place for example). They preach distinguishing yourself from the world in terms of forgiveness, not getting sucked into consumerism (surely CONSUMERISM IS WHAT THE REST OF THE WORLD BELIEVES), helping others etc.

    Anyways, ciao

  2. I think you have to define/qualify a bit more in your second category – eg. what you mean by “long haul”, “grow”, “conservative” & even what you mean by “bullying”. Reason I say this is that I’m not sure that there aren’t some large US churches (& Australian ones too for that matter) that might defy your point here. I can think of several large congregations under the leadership of a demonstrably domineering/bullying type leader (often including an eldership of the same ilk) that appear to be continuing to “succeed”. I agree with your 3 points & I want to think they are quite correct, but experience tells me it sometimes doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes the wicked prosper in pastoral ranks as well. Sometimes the deceivers & the pastorally disqualified produce large growing churches & continue to be revered. Whilst we would always like to think that divine justice would eventually catch up with them, or that the eyes of the flock would be opened by God to the true nature of their shepherds, the sad reality in our sinful world is that such is not always the case. And no matter how much we warn, critique, challenge or denounce such pastoral distortions of the Gospel, they seem to wear a coat of teflon & maintain a loyal following. In the end, all we can do as Christ’s pastors is remain attuned to the Gospel as much as possible & conduct ourselves as the shepherds of His flock in His footsteps in the light of the Scriptures for His glory.

  3. I agree with some of what Andrew said. There is no formulae. What I would say is that I have seen really dysfunctional Pastors lead growing churches, and their dysfunction actually aids that growth. I also seen plenty of dysfunctional leaders in the Bible who God uses in His grace in mighty ways. I also want to see your defintition of conservative teased out a lot. In my view, churches which have a reasonable sense of orthodoxy but a relevant authentic contemporary presentation are growing. I also agree that liberalism does the exact opposite of what it intends. It drives people away rather than attract. No one wants to be part of a church community that stands for nothing.

  4. I feel you alluded to another group without listing them.

    The conservative church disconnected from society.

    They could be lovely and orthodox yet without connecting with those outside, they may end up too insular.

    This could simply be not being as a whole at a stage of life where community relationships are often built (eg around children and their parents).

    1. Hmmm Yes… There are churches that are and have been conservative, but the neighborhood around them changed and they seem not to know what to do to engage the neighborhood… so there is sort of a disconnect.

      For example, an all-white church in a neighborhood that used to be all white but now is all Black or Chinese or Indian or etc. So its a challenge for these conservative churches to grow and quite often their members travel the distance to attend.

  5. Under Point One (Churches That Are Conservative and Tight), you write: “They have a closed hand about many of the open-handed issues that evangelical Christians have agreed to disagree about.” Well, it looks like some colloquium of evangelicals have decided for themselves (and for the rest of us) which items to happily disagree over. Are they the arbiters here, or shouldn’t we let God through Scripture define the essentials of faith?

    Those of us who agree with the salvific role of baptism, seeing it as the place where sins are remitted and Spirit is received, are made to be outsiders by the evangelical colloquium. It is their perspective that defines us as tight and nitpicky. And I grant that our numbers pale next to evangelicals who, unhappy with what Scripture says about baptism and unable to agree to that among themselves, assign baptism a definition and theological role to suit their post-1500’s theology. That puts us at disadvantage. We offer at conversion a chance to die to self and sin that answers His Cross-bearing with our own (the true place of baptism). It’s a hard sell, and we find few takers. Many are those who turn down the offer and seek out an evangelical outlet where they can just believe (and later get-wet-all-over for some other reason). Ah yes, that’s right comforting doctrine. Call me what you like, but it’s not in me to agree to disagree over issues of salvation determined by the authority of Christ Jesus.

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