Tag: church

5 Evangelical Trends for 2014

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In keeping with end of the year predictions, here are mine. Of course, several years ago I predicted $5 per gallon gas. Thankfully, we never got to that point. But in light of my obvious fallibility I’m framing my prognostications in the familiar “what’s in and what’s out” categories. Here’s what I think (and hope) are in and out for 2014:

1. Out: Celebrity Christians. In: Communities that model love for God and others.

More articles and blog posts appeared in 2013 lamenting the culture of “celebrity” that has infected the evangelical world. Celebrity Christians include people who are already celebrities, like Paula Deen and the Duck Commander, but celebrity Christians also include regular guys and gals who are clawing their way to the top of the bestseller list and the next big conference. Christian book publishers love the celebrity culture, but the rest of us are beginning to feel a little used.

In for 2014 are faith communities that model love for God and others. These communities are multiplying in American Christian culture, and have great appeal to everyone’s target group, Millennials. Beyond their attractiveness, communities like Grace and Main in Danville, Virginia are replacing celebrity with service and fame with friendship. Watch for more like them in 2014.

2. Out: Big evangelical conferences. In: Small local peer groups.

Apparently there are about 75 major evangelical conferences each year. Most of these target pastors, and obviously no pastor can attend all or even most of these conferences. The big conference model is coming to an end, just like the big electronic conventions of years past. Time and cost will be major factors in their decline. Also, if celebrity Christians are out, conferences which feature celebrity Christians will also fade away.

In for 2014 are small local peer group conversations. Book discussions over lunch, peer-to-peer support, and contextual problem-solving will grow in importance in 2014.

3. Out: Coaching.  In: Spiritual direction.

Coaching has reached critical mass in the church world. Anyone can be a coach, and unlike in the sports world, church and pastoral coaches aren’t graded on the success of their coaching. Coaching is a metaphor borrowed from the sports world that is losing currency in the church world.

Spiritual direction, on the other hand, is a traditional and appropriate helping ministry in the Christian community. Spiritual direction focuses on spiritual disciplines and insights such as discernment, guidance, insight, wisdom, vocation, and mission. The growth of spiritual practices such as lectio divina, the daily office, and the use of prayer books portend the rise of the ministry spiritual direction in 2014.

4. Out: Major Christian publishers. In: self-publishing for local ministry.

With a few notable exceptions, major Christian publishers continue to churn out pop books from celebrity authors. The costs, distribution, marketing and mass audience targeting of Christian publishing results in fewer authors with higher profiles (“celebrities,” see Item 1).

However, self-publishing platforms like Amazon provide free access to the author who has something to say, but has a limited audience. More self-published books will be available in 2014, and more of these will be written for a specific congregation or community. Mass marketing, in other words, is out, and contextual publishing is in.

5. Out: Preaching for “life change.”  In: Pastoral care.

Rick Warren popularized “preaching for life change,” which most pastors interpreted as preaching topical sermons on practical subjects like parenting, finances, and marriage. But not everyone is as good as Rick Warren at this type of preaching, and it easily degenerates into telling people how to live.

Pastoral care in sermon and practice, however, walks with individuals and families through all of the significant passages of life, and life’s unexpected difficulties, too. This “alongside” preaching and practice ministers to people in their life experiences, and encourages them to find God’s presence in moments of joy and sadness.

Those are the trends I see for the coming year.  Of course, there are negative trends that we in churches will have to deal with, too. I’ll leave those to others, and wish you a Happy New Year!

The Pastor as Artisan

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Over the centuries of church history, various metaphors have been used to describe the role of God’s chosen leaders. Some metaphors have lodged permanently in our collective consciousness, while others have not passed the test of time. I suggest that there is one more metaphor for the pastor’s role that might be a welcome addition to the others — the pastor as artisan.

Perhaps the oldest metaphor used to describe the pastoral leader is that of shepherd. The second metaphor used in the New Testament for church leaders is overseer. Both of those metaphors are enduring and widely used today.

Another metaphor that emerged in the early centuries of the church was that of pastor as the “physician of souls.” Sin was viewed as a disease and pastoral care was seen as the “cure of souls” with the priest as the administrator of that cure.

As the church growth movement took root in the 1980s, the popular metaphor of pastor as CEO was drawn from the corporate world. Successful churches, church growth advocates argued, concentrated authority in the pastor as CEO because this was the most effective means toward church growth. However, in retrospect the metaphor of pastor as CEO and the church growth movement have both proven to be inadequate for the complex task of shaping and leading twenty-first century congregations.

Of course, there are other pastoral metaphors in use as well. The popular triad of pastor as prophet, priest, and poet brings together several facets of pastoral ministry. From the sports world, the idea of the pastor as coach plays off popular sports imagery with the pastor as team strategist, and church staff and members as team players who execute the game plan.

To this wide-ranging mix of metaphors I would add one more — the pastor as artisan. At their height in the middle ages, artisans were skilled master craftsmen who produced goods that were beautiful and functional. These artisans included goldsmiths, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, weavers, tailors, shoemakers, hatters, tinsmiths, carpenters, potters, stonemasons, and so on. Master artisans took apprentices and trained them to become master craftsmen after apprenticeships lasting seven or more years. Artisans organized themselves into guilds which set standards and ensured that their particular skill and craft would endure.

There are six reasons I believe the artisan is an appropriate metaphor for pastors and their work.

1. Artisans focused on one product. They learned one trade which required them to learn how to select raw materials and how to craft those raw materials into a unique, finished product. Artisans lived in the vertical silo of their own trade. Silversmiths did not work in leather, cobblers did not make barrels, and carpenters did not branch out into stone work.

2. Artisans trained apprentices to continue their craft. Skills, insights, and trade secrets were passed from master artisan to his apprentices carefully. This hands-on training and mentoring assured the continuation of the traditions of each craft, but also allowed for advances and improvements as new tools and techniques were developed. Artisans brought on new trainees each year, assuring their workshops a continuing supply of understudies at different stages of learning.

3. Artisans were successful when their workshops produced both quality products and skilled apprentices. An artisan without an apprentice limited his future and the future of the trade in which he was engaged. Successful master artisans realized that their survival meant not only producing goods today, but continuing the trade for generations through the lives of apprentices they trained.

4. Artisans maintained important traditions while incorporating best practices as they became available. The purpose of the apprentice system was to pass on the skills and trade secrets developed over decades of skilled work techniques. These traditions became marks of pride, honor, and identification for each artisan guild. Guilds guaranteed that standards were followed, while also vetting newer practices. This process assured that the entire guild would continue to be well-thought of, and its products would be valued and purchased.

5. Artisans depended on other artisans for products they did not produce. The carriage maker, for instance, depended on the wheelwright for wheels. The wheelwright, in turn, depended on the blacksmith for the iron bands wrapped around the wooden wheel. Because artisans specialized, they depended on and supported each other’s work and products.

6. Artisans were themselves master craftsmen. While this might seem self-evident, they knew what it was like to be a novice, and then to progress to the more complex skills as their knowledge and craftsmanship developed. Master artisans knew the frustrations of apprenticeship, learned to endure the seven or more years their apprenticeship covered, and valued their training as they set up their own workshops as master artisans. There was no shortcut to becoming a master craftsman, and no absentee ownership of a skilled craft workshop. Artisans were hands-on masters, trained to train others while producing their own quality products.

In summary, the pastor as artisan is an apt metaphor and here’s why.

 Like artisans, pastors…

1. Focus on one product — proclaiming and practicing the good news of Jesus Christ.

2. Train others to do what they do, thereby ensuring continuity of Christian witness now and in the future.

3. Are most successful when they not only produce effective ministry results, but when they also work closely with others to do the same.

4. Value age-old traditions, such as doctrinal orthodoxy, while incorporating new expressions of the faith into their practice.

5. Depend on others, as members of the body of Christ, to provide those gifts they do not possess in order to function faithfully as the Church.

6. Have learned important lessons from skilled leaders who have gone before them, and have incorporated those lessons into their own mature practice of ministry.

Viewing pastors and other church leaders as artisans helps us to take a long-term approach to ministry. Apprenticeships that lasted seven years required patience, consistency, and perseverance from both master artisan and apprentice. However, by taking the long view , artisans created beautiful products and an enduring legacy. Pastors could learn from their example.

An Unwelcomed and Unexpected Illness

It’s 11:12 PM on Friday night, March 8, 2013. I cannot sleep despite having taken several medications that are supposed to relieve the pain I’m having. Yesterday, after two weeks of agonizing symptoms and three trips to hospital emergency rooms, a neurologist diagnosed me with idiopathic peripheral neuropathy, a fancy way of saying I have unexplained pain, numbness, and weakness in my legs, arms, and other parts of my body.

During his examination, he determined that I no longer have reflexes in my legs and arms. You know the test: the doctor whacks you on the knee with a rubber hammer and your leg pops up involuntarily. Except mine doesn’t, not even slightly. I am now walking with the aid of either a cane or a walker because the bottoms of my feet are numb, and my legs give way without warning.

Needless to say, this is an unwelcomed and unexpected situation. I am an extremely healthy person. I lost 40 pounds last year eating a low-fat vegan diet, just like Bill Clinton does. My heart, which has been tested three different times over the past two weeks, was described by the cardiologist as “as good as it gets.” My blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar are all well within the optimum ranges.

In January of this year, I contracted a nasty virus and was sick for three weeks. I was so sick that my wonderful church family gave me the entire month off to recuperate. I had only been back to work three weeks when the first of my symptoms began to appear. On Monday I will have a MRI, and on Tuesday a nerve conductivity test where apparently you become a human pin cushion to measure the speed and conductivity of nerves throughout the body.

To be on this side of illness is a new experience for me. I now know why when I visit my members in the hospital, their arms are black-and-blue from the IV ports inserted in them. I am more able to empathize with the loss of dignity in times of illness as others talk about your bodily functions and as you lie half-naked on an uncomfortable gurney hoping you’re not putting on a show for those passing by.

The other part of this experience is to be on the receiving end of love and care demonstrated by my community and congregation. Members have brought food, sent flowers, loaned me a recliner and a walker, have prayed, visited, and expressed their concern over and over again. I have found that it is encouraging to have someone visit when you’re sick. I do feel supported, loved, and cared for by the people I have called my flock for almost 9 years.

Debbie and I do not know if this condition is permanent or temporary. In either event, we do know that God is walking with us down this road, whether the journey is long or brief. Most importantly, we feel God’s presence in the cards, calls, visits, food, flowers, and expressions of concern from our church family.

I’m learning some new things about the ways of God. Not that God caused this illness, or even would will it on me or anyone, but I am learning that in the midst of difficulty, God is present in Spirit and in the lives of the people in whose hearts he lives and reigns. I hope to be back soon with a regular schedule of sermons and thoughts on small church life, but for now I’m on my own journey to the cross and empty tomb, but I’m not on it alone.

“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.

15 Traits of Innovative Leaders

A few days ago I had the opportunity to participate in a leadership conference with Dr. Greg Jones, former dean of Duke Divinity School, and Dr. John Upton, president of the Baptist World Alliance and the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. Next week, I’ll share Greg Jones’ thoughts on leadership, but today I thought you might like to hear what John Upton had to say.

Dr. Upton listed 15 characteristics of innovative church leaders, which he has observed in his global contact with Baptist leaders, and leaders from other Christian traditions. Dr. Upton said that these are not ranked by priority, but are observable in those leaders he has met in countries where the Church is thriving.

1. Leaders create opportunities. Dr. Upton remarked that leaders live in a context of discovery, exploration, and learning. Out of that inquisitive context, leaders open spaces for new things to happen.

2. Leaders say “I don’t know.” Acknowledging honestly that you as a leader do not have all the answers opens the way for others to explore, experiment, and discover things that even you as a leader might not have thought of. Dr. Upton contends that saying “I don’t know” gives permission to others to “figure it out” while the leader offers wisdom and supports those who are exploring new possibilities.

3.  Leaders are rarely the best performers, but rather are talent developers. Upton used the illustration of an orchestra and conductor. While the conductor may not be skilled enough to occupy the first chair of any section, she brings together all of the talent of those who do occupy the orchestral sections into a beautiful blend of harmony and energy.

4. Leaders cast the vision of hope. While “vision-casting” has come to mean the leader presents a program or concept all neatly tied up, Upton contends that great leaders like Churchill and FDR cast a vision of hope. From hope others rise to the occasion, innovate in their situations, and produce more and better results than one leader alone could hope to.

5. Leaders thrive on paradox. Great leaders are able to hold two opposing views in mind, and come up with a solution that considers all possibilities. A good resource is The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking by Roger L. Martin.

6. Leaders love a mess. John Upton observed that good leaders always have a symbolic supply of duct tape handy, which I thought was a good metaphor for fixing things on the fly. Upton observed that leaders are “comfortable in the craziness,” which is not the same in my opinion as comfortable with lack of focus.

7. Leaders do and then they re-do. There is no absolute solution in any organization. Today’s solution may become tomorrow’s obstacle. Leaders recognize the need for revisiting and re-evaluating an organization’s goals and accomplishments, however those are measured.

8.  Leaders know when to wait. Timing can be just as important as vision. Learning to wait patiently for the right moment, the right atmosphere, the right people to be on-board with a project can be critical to the success of that project. Patience is a virtue, not just in theory, but in leading churches as well.

9.  Leaders are optimistic. Optimism means leaders “believe that this can be a better world, we can make a difference” according to Upton. Optimism is not blind disregard of reality, but a long-range attitude of hope.

10. Leaders convey a grand design, but attend to details. Grand schemes are great, and folks need an over-arching vision. But, as the architect Mies van der Rohe is alleged to have said, “God is in the details.” Apparently, this applies to churches as well as architecture.

11. Leaders make mistakes, but create blame-free cultures. “I’d rather reward a great failure, than a mediocre success,” Upton commented. Failure without blame is not a bad thing for organizations, and part of the learning curve of innovative cultures.

12. Leaders are talent fanatics. Great leaders, according to Jim Collins, surround themselves with highly-talented people, and exhibit personal humility when talking about their group’s accomplishments. Great leaders attract, nurture, mentor, and reward talent, according to Upton.

13. Leaders create networks for peer-learning. Really good leaders are not the only generators of ideas or information in their organizations. Peer-learning networks which connect across organizations, departments, or other organizational boundaries create a culture of curiosity and exploration.

14. Leaders know themselves well. This may be one of the toughest qualities of leadership to master. Self-knowledge, coupled with self-regulation, separates the good from the best in leadership. Acknowledging that “I’m not in charge” of everything, which is the cousin of “I don’t know everything” enables others to succeed and communicates that the leader understands his or her own limitations.

15. Leaders take breaks. There are no rewards for pastors who say, “I never take a vacation.” Leaders need a break from the pressures of leadership in order to rest, recharge, and re-evaluate. Think of preventive maintenance for pastors, and you’ve got the idea. Great leaders step away, have other interests, pay attention to their relationships, and recognize their need for perspective.

Those are John Upton’s 15 characteristics of great leaders, based on his experience and observation. What other traits or practices would you add to this list? Or, how would you rank these in order of priority for your ministry setting?

The Possibility of Church-led Reconciliation

Almost fifty years ago, a Baptist minister stood before a sea of hopeful people in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to share the dream God had given him. On that day the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”[1]

Regrettably, Dr. King’s dream remains unrealized in many communities across America. Rather than diminishing with the gains of the civil rights movement, alienation and inequality between races and classes is more prevalent in American society today than it was in 1975.[2] Black and white, rich and poor, educated and unskilled – these represent some of the groups at odds in today’s American communities.

Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that churches have a role to play[3] in tearing down barriers and in building bridges to that vision he called “the beloved community.”

“The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community,” according to King. In the beloved community persons and groups are reconciled to one another by God’s “divine love in lived social relation.”[4]

The Apostle Paul affirmed the church’s mission as one of reconciliation. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18 NIV). While many churches understand reconciliation primarily as a “private affair between God and the individual,”[5] less emphasis has been placed on reconciliation between persons and groups within local communities.[6]

Reconciliation, according to the Ubuntu theology[7] of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is “bringing together that which is separated, alienated, ruptured, sick, or broken.”[8] Reconciliation, Tutu argues, is the ministry of the Church and the “center of our life and work as Christians.”[9]

In communities throughout the United States, there is much that needs to be reconciled. In my state, Virginia’s history boasts both the grand and glorious, and the dark and ignominious. From the colonial era through the Civil War, Virginia’s slave trade was robust. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – words penned by Virginian Thomas Jefferson – did not apply to Africans brought in chains involuntarily to the South.[10] The lingering effects of slavery, and the living descendants of slaves and slave-owners, make it impossible for those in our community to escape easily the injustices of the past.

Reconciliation has also been defined as “a journey from the past into the future, a journey from estrangement to communion, or from what was patently unjust in search of a future that is just.”[11] Given Virginia’s colonial history, its role in the Civil War, and its resistance to desegregation, reconciliation must revisit the past with honesty, and then forge a new way forward.

In December 2005, our small, historic white congregation opened its doors to host a Boys and Girls Club, the first after-school club in our county. As a result of that decision dozens of children, black and white, descended on the church fellowship hall each weekday afternoon. This was the church’s first experience hosting a racially-integrated program.

Because of the church’s involvement with the Boys and Girls Club, Chatham Baptist Church was asked to host the 2008 Martin Luther King Day celebration in Chatham. At the conclusion of the program that day, the African American pastor who moderated the meeting asked everyone in the congregation to stand, join hands, and sing “We Shall Overcome.” Before we began to sing, he looked at me as I stood at the front of the sanctuary. He said, “Pastor, people notice what you’re doing here.” His words of encouragement confirmed what I had hoped for: reconciliation was possible in our community.

Some might argue that the alienation brought about by slavery, Jim Crow laws, and segregation is a forgotten chapter in a long dead past. Douglas Massey, however, argues against that notion:

‘History aside, there are also good social scientific reasons to expect that categorical mechanisms of racial stratification will prove resistant to change. We know, for example, that once learned, cognitive structures do not simply disappear. Racial schemas honed over generations tend to persist in the minds of adults and get passed on to children in conscious and unconscious ways.”[12]

The story that is passed on to the children of any community is important. For too long the children of our nation in both the South and the North have been bequeathed the cultural legacy of prejudice and privilege, or difference and discrimination. For that to change, churches like mine must imagine and bequeath a new legacy through a ministry of reconciliation. That would be a new story for this community, and one worth passing on to future generations everywhere.


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have A Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed The World, 104.

[2] Douglas S. Massey, Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System, xvi.

[3] King, I Have a Dream, 95-98.

[4] Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today, 1-2.

[5] John W. de Gruchy, Reconciliation: Restoring Justice, 34.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Michael Battle, Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu, 5.

[8] Ibid.,180.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Putnam, American Grace, Location 588.

[11] de Gruchy, Reconciliation, 28.

[12] Massey, Categorically Unequal, 52.

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.