Category: Books

Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Probably Not

Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 10.42.34 PMIn their newly-released book, Bonhoeffer The Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking, the authors Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel provide compelling evidence that Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not participate in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler.

I had anticipated this book’s publication since reading an article in which one of the author’s, Mark Thiessen Nation, revealed the thesis of their research. Excited as I was by that article, this book is even more exciting as a new look at an old myth.

As to their thesis that Bonhoeffer maintained his pacifist stance in both word and deed, the authors assert confidently, “If by ‘activities’ we mean actions that contributed directly to attempts to kill Hitler, there is no evidence of any such actions on Bonhoeffer’s part.” (p. 87). By reviewing writings about Bonhoeffer, the writings and sermons of Bonhoeffer, and the testimonies of those who knew Bonhoeffer, Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel not only dispel the myth of Bonhoeffer’s alleged participation in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, they blow it up altogether.

Interestingly, Mark Thiessen nation offers his own understanding for decades of fascination with the story of the young pacifist theologian who turned to violence in the hot-light of Nazi atrocities. Nation writes, “Repeatedly I see writings about Bonhoeffer that imply that what truly sets him apart is that he was a theologian–a former pacifist and trainer of pastors–who then became involved in plots to kill Hitler.”(p. 229). This story fits our national psyche, our need to affirm that no one, not even a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, can adhere to the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount in the real world in which we live. However, to believe this unchallenged theory, Nation argues, seriously distorts the legacy of Bonhoeffer.

This is an important book, a book that rewrites the story of Bonhoeffer — a book which asserts that the real transition Bonhoeffer made was not from naive idealist to mature realist, but from rationalizing nationalist to completely committed disciple of Jesus Christ. No biographer of Bonhoeffer’s will again be able to get away with the unfounded assumption of Bonhoeffer’s turn toward violence. Even critics of the authors’ conclusions and convictions will be unable to accept without question the heretofore unquestioned wisdom about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Read other books on Bonhoeffer, including his own work, but read this one as a credible corrective to a myth that was all too easy to believe.

Disclaimer: I purchased my own copy of the book from Amazon and did not receive any inducement for this review.  -cw

My Dissertation Arrives

image

Two bound copies of my dissertation arrived today. The title is The Reconciling Community: The Missional Mending of Spiritual and Social Relationships Through Local Church Ministry.

I lived with writing this for almost two years, so it is very gratifying to see it done, bound, and approved. Still waiting for my DMin degree to be posted and for my diploma to arrive.

The next project is converting the academic research into a more accessible form for publication. Two years to publication probably. Sisyphus redux.

“Filled Up, Poured Out” Overflows with Stories and Insights

I have waited far too long to spotlight Mark O. Wilson’s new book, Filled Up, Poured Out: How God’s Spirit Can Revive Your Passion and Purpose.  Mark and I met as fellow-bloggers, and I have followed his blog, Revitalize Your Church for several years now. Mark is a warm-hearted, spirit-filled pastor who encourages and challenges all of us to be all that God has called us to be.

That’s exactly what Mark’s book does, too. In 13 concise chapters, Mark identifies for his readers the persistent problem that plagues ministry and ministers — running on empty, which Mark characterizes as “vacuus=empty, devoid of, free from.” He writes about empty pastors (chapter 1); empty churches (chapter 2); and, the solution to both (chapter 3).

In the next section of the book, headlined “repleo,” Mark talks about how to replenish the power of God in your life through “immersion, faith, contentment, enduement, and confluence.” In the final third of the book, Mark reveals how the filled up pastor allows God’s grace to flow out in compassion, blessing, righteousness, influence, and saturation.

Each chapter in the book overflows with stories, scripture, insights, and mind-pegs to get you thinking, praying, and dreaming about what God has for your ministry. With 13 chapters, the book’s format is perfect for small group Bible studies. Although the initial audience for the book is pastors, church leaders and members will benefit from Mark’s easy style, and memorable insights. Pastors, this book contains more sermon illustrations than you could come up with in hours of searching. Many of the stories are from Mark’s own ministry experiences.

I especially love the story about his trip to Africa. Asked to preach at a local village church on a Sunday morning, Mark was amazed to see over 3,000 people gathered for worship at 7:30 AM. The frame structure only held 1,000, but the other 2,000 worshippers surrounded the building, responding to every line in his sermon. After he preached, Mark recalls that the congregation began to sing. The local missionary explained to Mark that they were making up a new song from the points in his sermon, which was their way of remembering what they had learned that Sunday. A new song, Mark noted, flowed from their hearts. That story would resonate with any congregation which was seeking God. And, there are more just like that in Mark’s book.

Get this book. As you read, you’ll be blessed and encouraged, perhaps to the point of being “filled up” yourself, so you can be “poured out” for others. After all, that’s what pastors do, and Mark helps us remember that with joy and wonder.

Wright Offers A Compelling and Coherent Vision In ‘Simply Jesus’

It goes without saying that N. T. Wright, recently called the J. K. Rowling of the evangelical world, is a prolific writer.  The author of more than 30 books by one count, Wright cranks out multi-hundred page volumes like others do tweets.  But the difference is that Wright also packs substance and soft-edged provocation into each of his texts.  As you might expect, Wright has done it again with his latest volume titled, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why It Matters.

In Simply Jesus, Wright gives his non-academic audience an imminently readable portal into Wright’s own framework for studying and understanding the life of Jesus.  This is not another Jesus Seminar attempt to get “behind” the Gospels to find the “real” Jesus.  Wright contends that what we need to do is get “inside them, to discover the Jesus they’ve been telling us about all along, but whom we had managed to screen out.”

We have screened out Jesus, Wright argues, by ripping Jesus out of the first-century, second-Temple milieu in which his ministry occurs, and transforming Jesus into a 21st century reflection of our own culture.  Wright critiques the popular evangelical assumption that Jesus has come to take us all to heaven, stressing that the story of God and Israel is at the heart of what God did and continues to do through Jesus.

Wright masterfully weaves together the converging perfect storm of Roman Empire domination, Jewish anxiety, and Jesus’ Kingdom ministry to explain why Jesus said what he did, and why he encountered the opposition of almost everyone who heard him.

Wright’s point in all of this is that Jesus announced that God was in charge, which is Wright’s shorthand for the Kingdom of God.  Jesus not only announced it, he acted himself as if he really was in charge by taking on the religious and cultural establishment through his teaching, miracles, and self-sacrifice.  But, Wright contends, what they, and we, want is not a king, but a religious leader.  And even if we want a king, we certainly don’t want one like Jesus who redefined divine kingship.

Most importantly, Wright makes sense of the Jesus story in a way that no one else has.  If you have read Wright’s magnum opus in three volumes (Christian Origins and the Question of God), particularly Jesus and the Victory of God, you will recognize Wright’s argument stripped down to its essentials.  Wright discredits the reduction of the Gospel into a “4 Spiritual Laws” parody.  He explains how the Exodus experience became the symbolic and actual story of Israel; and, how Jesus reinterpreted that story in his own life.

Wright sees the biblical narrative as one piece, and sees Old Testament fulfillment in Jesus’ New Testament life.  This is no longer the “Jesus came to take us to heaven” story; it is now the “Jesus came to be King of all creation” story, and all that implies.

Wright will not please everyone with his approach, and he acknowledges that himself.  But what Wright does do is to offer both a compelling and coherent vision of who Jesus is, “what he did, and why it matters.” Or to put is another way, the conversation about what God is up to in the world doesn’t start with man’s sin, but with God’s grand purpose for creation. Others have hinted around the edges of this, but Wright walks through the Bible blazing a trail that makes one ask, “Why didn’t I see this before?”

Wright’s Simply Jesus should be at the top of your reading list.  Small groups, Sunday School classes, and others interested in understanding the story of the Bible, and where Jesus fits in, will benefit from reading and discussing this book.  This book has the potential to be a game-changer, and others are already picking up the idea of Jesus as king and what that means.  Scot McKnight’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel, is a case in point.  And, Wright is coming out with his own take on the Gospel in March, 2012, with his next book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.  This approach isn’t going away, and Wright is its most prolific spokesman.

Disclaimer: I purchased Simply Jesus as a Kindle book from Amazon at my own expense, and received no compensation for this review.

Six Dramatic Trends Impacting Small Churches

Six Dramatic Trends Impacting Small Churches

In his new book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, Professor Mark Chaves of Duke University identifies six new trends affecting U. S. congregations, including small churches.

In the chapter titled simply “Congregations,” Chaves examines sociological and demographic trends which are shaping church congregations. These six trends are:

Loosening denominational ties.  Of the 300,000-or-so congregations in the United States today, 1 out of 5 is an independent church, not affiliated with any religious denomination.  And, although this may seem apparent, a full 20% of all Protestants (which includes everybody not Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, etc) attend an independent church.  In addition, in the churches which are affiliated, funds sent by the churches to denominational headquarters have fallen from 5% of church receipts in 1998, to 4% of receipts by 2006.  While some churches may have stopped or redirected giving to their denomination in protest of unpopular actions, Chaves believes the drop in sharing reflects the “rising costs of running a local congregation.”  My own church reflects this trend as we have shifted the allocation of funds in recent years more to our own local missions efforts and less to our denomination’s.

Greater use of technology.  This trend, unlike some of the others, is obvious and observable, but Chaves provides specific percentages of churches employing digital technology.  For instance, 74% of churches now have websites, and 79% of congregations now communicate with their members via email.  But only 32% are using visual projection in worship.  I thought the use of projection in worship was higher than that, but obviously some changes come more slowly than others.  What we are quick to embrace in our personal lives, we might not embrace so readily in our corporate worship experiences.  Our own church confirms this trend.  While we maintain a church website, and use email and an online phone tree for contacting our members, we do not use projection in our traditional worship service.  In this one area, small churches might be skewing the percentages since there are more small congregations than large.

Increasing informality in worship.  Chaves notes that more churches incorporate “drums, jumping or shouting or dancing, raising hands in praise, applause, calling out amen, and visual projection equipment” in worship than before.  Even in our very traditional service, we have made a conscious effort to “loosen up,” and our members applaud as their expression of appreciation for music or other presentations.  As you might imagine, dressing more informally, especially among younger people, is also part of this trend toward informal worship, which is a part of the larger trend of dressing informally in our social and work lives as well.

Aging membership.  People in the pews are getting older, according to Chaves.  While five of the six trends mirror changes in the wider culture, this trend of an aging membership is ahead of the rest of our society.  In the 1970s, church membership was about 3 years older than society at large.  Today church attendees on average are 5 years older than the wider population.  “Only when it comes to the aging of their people are congregations on the leading edge of a demographic trend,” Chaves notes.

Increasing member education and affluence.  In addition to the increase in age, congregants also have increased in educational level, with more college-educated than before; and, in income level as well.  In my opinion, while these increases are welcomed at the local church level because they represent both enhanced levels of potential leadership and giving, the downside is that congregations as a whole may have moved away from the most marginalized of society – adults with lower incomes and educational levels.  These “working poor” formed the backbone of Methodists, Baptists, and Pentecostal denominations in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  If they are being left behind as church congregations grow in both education and affluence that would be a tragic abdication of the church’s mission in the 21st century.  In our own community, the “working poor” represent the largest unreached population among our local churches.

Increasing growth and popularity of large churches.  Two things are clear in Chaves’s research.  First, there are more small churches than large churches.  That’s the good news for small congregations.  The median size of congregations remains unchanged at less than 100.  Specific estimates range from 75-90 participating adults as the median size, which means that half of all churches are smaller, and half are larger.

But, the second fact brings discouraging news for smaller churches.  While the median congregation has less than 100 participants, the median church member attends a church of 400 participants.  In other words, well over half church participants are in churches that are much larger than the median.

Chaves reports this trend to larger churches by saying: “The biggest 1 percent of Protestant churches, for example, contain approximately 15 percent of all the people, money, and staff” in that denomination.  This trend toward larger churches is growing and is evident across all denominations.  This trend toward larger churches is occurring in evangelical and mainline denominations whether they are growing or declining; and, in liberal as well as conservative ones.

Chaves notes, “There are more very large churches, and the largest churches are bigger than before, but the key development is that people are increasingly concentrated in the very largest churches.”

However, Chaves also notes that on the whole, religious participation in America is declining.  He cautions that this trend toward “concentration (more people in bigger churches) has not increased because megachurches have figured out how to attract the ‘unchurched.’”

The implications of Chaves’s findings in this rise of larger churches is, first, the obvious one that the movement of participating church members is from smaller congregations to larger ones.  But, secondly, that movement may or may not be solely the result of the attraction of larger churches, but may also result from the shift of population from rural to urban areas.  We are, in other words, swapping members from smaller to larger, from rural to urban churches.

Chaves also notes that the rise of megachurches creates the illusion that church participation on the whole is on the rise. That is not the case, however.  Although an amazing 60% of American adults have attended a service at a congregation in the past year, only about 25% attend church on any given week, and that number is unchanged over several years.

Additionally, if you think that emerging churches, or “spiritual but not religious” are outpacing the traditional local congregation, think again.  Chaves reminds us that traditional, institutional churches remain by far the “most significant social form of American religion” in our culture.

Mark Chaves offers small churches a mixed bag of information to deal with in his book, American Religion.  Some of these trends are observable (aging members, more technology), some are welcomed (higher education and affluence levels), and some are problematic for small churches (neglect of working poor, and more members in more larger churches).  But the startling fact that should spark our imaginations in both small and large churches is Chaves’s conclusion:

 “The religious trends I have documented point to a straight-forward general conclusion:  no indicator of traditional religious belief or practice is going up.” – American Religion:  Contemporary Trends, Kindle loc. 1209.

 This observation should spur both large and small church leaders to a renewed sense of mission, critical self-examination, and innovative methods of outreach.  Whatever the realities of the small church versus megachurch conversation, American Christianity as a whole is falling further and further behind in reaching and impacting the people around us.  That is the most disturbing trend of all, in my estimation.

Disclaimer:  I purchased American Religion: Contemporary Trends from Amazon at my own expense, and received no inducement or other consideration to quote from, or use this book.  This article is the result of my own reading and reflection and was not suggested by the author, publisher, or publicist connected with the book. -CW

How Evangelicalism Changed And Why It Needs To Change Again

Evangelicalism has thrived in America because of its ability to adapt to its culture, according to Randall Balmer in his book, The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond.

Balmer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University and a contributing editor to Christianity Today, writes in this brief book published in 2010 by Baylor University Press, that five historic shifts have shaped evangelicalism uniquely as “America’s folk religion.”  These shifts are:

1.  The shift from state church to free church.  Balmer contends that the First Amendment, which guarantees that the government shall not establish or impede religious expression, set evangelicalism free from state influence to flourish or die on its own.  Unlike Europe where acts of toleration permitted dissenting groups to exist in the shadows of the state-sanctioned church, the First Amendment assured that American churches would be allowed to “compete” among themselves for the attention of the American public.  This freedom was not only a freedom to worship, but also a freedom to freelance the Christian faith by any person or group who chose to do so.  Balmer notes, The genius of evangelicalism throughout American history is its malleability and the uncanny knack of evangelical leaders to speak the idiom of the culture…”

It is this freedom to change that has enabled evangelicalism to flourish and adapt to the culture around it.  However, there are dangers associated with adapting to the culture, which Balmer addresses in the book.

2.  The shift from Calvinism to Arminianism.  Balmer illustrates this important theological shift by describing the differences in the First and Second Great Awakenings in America.  The First Awakening was dominated by a sense of helplessness expressed by Jonathan Edwards in his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon.  Revival and salvation were God’s work, and sinners were at the mercy of God as to their eternal destiny, according to Edwards.

But by the time of the Second Awakening, preachers like Charles G. Finney believed that revival was “man’s work.”  Finney published a manual telling how others could hold revival meetings and included details about location, songs, and even the mourners’ bench.  This shift from hyper-Calvinism (“God’s work) to hyper-Arminianism (“man’s choice”) changed the ways in which the gospel was presented, and changed the focus of evangelical life.

Balmer explains the recent renaissance of Calvinism among those who believe in a person’s ability to “decide for Christ” (an Arminian belief) as an attempt to reclaim the intellectual high ground despite the shifting history of evangelicalism’s theology.

3.  The shift from postmillennialism to premillennialism.  How could one’s view of the millennial reign of Christ, a rather esoteric theological doctrine, influence the practice of evangelicals in America?  Balmer points out that the evangelicalism of the nineteenth century grappled with some of the great social issues of its day.  Evangelicals were on the forefront of the battle to outlaw slavery, clean up the effects of alcohol, create public education opportunities for poor children, and secure the right for women to vote.  Great institutions were founded to care for the sick, educate the illiterate, feed the hungry, care for the homeless, and rehabilitate the fallen.

Balmer believes that this urgency to reform society and cure its ills came from the postmillennial idea that Christ would return after a 1,000-years of peace and righteousness.  However, with the twin horrors of the Civil War and then World War I, the hope of a 1,000-years’ of righteousness brought in by human effort faded from the evangelical imagination.  Evangelicals turned their attention to the salvation of “souls,” separating spiritual souls from the harsh reality in which those souls struggled.

J. N. Darby provided the theological impetus for this shift with his doctrine called premillennial dispensationalism.  Darby’s theology explained neatly the epochs of God’s dealing with mankind.  It also freed Christians from creating the millennial kingdom because believers would be taken out of the world until Christ came to establish that kingdom himself.  One of the results of premillennialism was a disregard for creation.  This issue is still with us today.  In 2008, Richard Cizik resigned under pressure from his position at the National Association of Evangelicals.  Although not the immediate reason for his resignation, Cizik had drawn criticism for advocating care for the environment as an evangelical issue.

4.  The shift from engagement to disengagement and back again.  Facing the twin pressures of attack on their beliefs from the scientific community via Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the academic community via higher criticism of biblical texts, evangelicals sought to define themselves by enumerating an indisputable list of “fundamentals” to which they subscribed.  This differentiation between evangelicals and “liberals” in both academia and science played out in the famous Scopes “monkey trial” in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee.

Fed up with being portrayed negatively after the Scopes’ trial, evangelicals began to withdraw from the wider culture, establishing their own schools, colleges, seminaries, and other institutions to counter the encroachment of “modernism” and “liberalism” on their families and churches.   But in 1947, Carl F. H. Henry published his book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, and a group of evangelicals founded Fuller Theological Seminary.  Both events marked the re-engagement of evangelicals with American culture.  Billy Graham’s Christianity Today became the journalistic voice for an active and thoughtful evangelicalism.

5.  The shift from the marginalized to the powerful.  Re-engagement was to take a right turn after the election of Jimmy Carter as president in 1976.  Carter, initially the darling of conservatives, soon became their whipping boy.  With the IRS threatening to revoke the tax-exempt status of the ultra-conservative Bob Jones’ University, the rise of the Religious Right began.  Denominations and churches which had begun their ministries to the lower classes and the marginalized of society, shifted to embrace the power of politics and the prestige that went with it.  Balmer sees this shift as the “capitulation” of evangelicalism.  But he believes that the Religious Right was dealt a “mortal” blow with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.  Balmer may or may not be correct about that, but what he does hope for, in his own words, is…

“…an evangelicalism for the twenty-first century that takes seriously the words of the Hebrew prophets who called for justice, an evangelicalism that honors the teachings and the example of Jesus, who asked his followers to act as peacemakers and to care for “the least of these.”  Such an evangelicalism, I am confident, would look rather different from that of recent years.”

Perhaps evangelicalism will remember its 19th century accomplishments of setting at liberty those who were captive, of healing those who were sick, of visiting those who were in prison, and of caring for those who were in despair.  If we as evangelicals are adaptable as Balmer contends, then perhaps we can adapt again to the crises around us, and again share the love of Christ with those at the margins of society.

The Myth of Why Conservative Churches Are Growing

The Myth of Why Conservative Churches Are Growing

The myth that conservative churches are growing today because people are looking for theological fundamentalism is roundly debunked by Mark Chaves in his new book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends.  Despite the book’s mundane title, Mark Chaves sheds dramatic new light on the shape of the American religious scene today.  Chaves’s conclusions may surprise you and contradict what you have long heard.

In his 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, Dean Kelley shocked the religious world by concluding that conservative churches demanded more of their members theologically and behaviorally; therefore, they attracted more people than liberal mainline congregations who focused on social and political issues.    The book’s credibility was further enhanced by the fact that Dean Kelley was a liberal Protestant, an executive with the National Council of Churches, and a member of the board of the ACLU.  The common wisdom was that if a liberal was identifying reasons for conservative church growth and liberal church decline, then it must be true.

Kelley’s book continues to be cited by conservative church leaders such as Al Mohler as proof of the inherent validity of the conservative agenda.  In an April, 2011 article, Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, quotes Kelley:  “Amid the current neglect and hostility toward organized religion in general,” Kelley noted, “the conservative churches, holding to seemingly outmoded theology and making strict demands on their members, have equalled or surpassed in growth the early percentage increases of the nation’s population.”

For almost 40 years Kelley’s conclusions held sway as the conventional wisdom of American religious institutions.  Conservative churches grow, liberal ones do not, and it’s all because of conservative theology and politics.  Or maybe not.

While it is true that conservative churches are still growing, Mark Chaves, Professor of Sociology, Religion, and Divinity at Duke University, has mined new data that paint a dramatically different picture.  Chaves says,

“Contrary to what many believe, this decline (of liberal Protestantism) has not occurred because people have been leaving more liberal denominations in droves to join more conservative religious groups.  Nor does the decline of liberal denominations mean that liberal religious ideas are waning.”  (American Religion, chapter 7, Kindle location 923.)

Chaves offers four reasons that conservative churches are growing, and they are not an echo of 40-years’ of conventional thinking.   Chaves concludes:

1.   Conservative churches are growing and liberal ones declining because of a differential in the fertility rates of each group.   This demographic fact accounts for 80% of the “shifting fortunes of liberal and conservative Protestant churches” according to Chaves.  Apparently women in conservative denominations have borne an average of one more child than women in more liberal or moderate denominations.  Over several generations this difference becomes apparent and dramatic.  But Chaves points out that the gap in fertility rates is narrowing between conservative and liberal denominations.  In the future this could be a factor in the slowing or decline of conservative groups as well.

2.   The flow of people from liberal to conservative churches is not a factor, but the decline of movement from conservative to liberal churches is.  This argument requires some explanation.  Chaves contends that the “pews of liberal churches are emptier now partly because a steady influx of upwardly mobile former evangelicals has been stemmed.”   Chaves notes that 28% of conservative Protestants born prior to 1931 “switched to a more liberal denomination as an adult.”  In other words, the more successful the pre-WWII generation was, the more they gravitated to more prestigious churches and denominations.  However, that trend dropped dramatically among those born after 1950, when only 12% of conservatives gravitated to more prestigious denominations.  Chaves’s conclusion is that conservative groups like Baptists have become more respectable in American church life.  Because of this new-found respectability, it is no longer necessary for upwardly-mobile adults to find a church that more closely fits their secular success.

3.   Conservative Protestants lose 12% of their youth as adults, but liberal churches lose 15%.  Clearly, over several generations the stickiness of conservative groups with emerging adults contributes to the stabilization of those groups.  Mainline Protestants, on the other hand, lose 20% more of those who grew up in liberal churches than do conservatives.  Obviously, this differential adds up over time.

4.   Culture has influenced the growth of conservative churches and the decline of mainlines.   Chaves contends that conservative churches benefited from a backlash in the 1960s and 70s against “liberalizing changes in personal sexual morality” and other social factors.  Conservative churches of that era attracted those who liked a more traditional approach to sexual mores including premarital sex, cohabitation, homosexuality, abortion, and other social issues.

While that sounds like a contradiction to Chaves’s conclusions, it really confirms them.  If Kelley’s book identified conservative churches themselves (their membership demands, strict theology, etc) as the reason for their growth, the reverse was actually true.  As the culture became more conservative, people sought out more conservative churches.  In other words, conservative churches benefited from a turn to the right in the wider culture.  However, the opposite trends are now in play.  Even among conservatives the trends are for greater tolerance of other denominations and religions; greater tolerance for lifestyle diversity; and, less adherence to doctrines such as the inerrancy of the Bible.  It remains to be seen how this “liberalizing effect” plays out in church attendance and membership.

In the introduction to his book, Chaves points out that “The range of beliefs, attitudes, experiences, and practices that remain unchanged (in American religious life) is impressive.”  But he says, “even in the midst of substantial continuity in American religion there are signs of change in the direction of less religion.”

All churches and denominations including the conservative Southern Baptist Convention and moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship face the same challenge: participation in religious life is declining in America, even if that decline is occurring slowly.  Mark Chaves’ book can be a helpful resource to those who are interested in understanding the reasons for religious decline in America.  The first step in that direction is to acknowledge that we may have been wrong about the reasons for conservative growth and liberal decline for 40 years.